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Emotional Intelligence as a Driver for Sustainable Development

The Sustainable Development Goals are an ambitious project at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They are intended as a holistic and interconnected approach to development in which each goal can have positive spillover effects on the others. However, much of the systemic thinking behind the goals could be lost when it clashes with individual needs and value systems. Educating citizens about a novel conception of development and sustainability is crucial to create a prosperous world for everybody. This is particularly true considering that education is in itself an SDG. SDG 4 aims at ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. However, to have a real mentality and behavior change, classic educational benchmarks and targets need to be supported by the paradigm shift in the balance between individual and collective needs. This is where emotional intelligence (EI) could play a key role.

The European Union in its effort to promote and achieve SDG 4 has launched a series of actions regarding education and life skills. The European Education Area (EEA) is aimed at improving the access to quality education for all, with relative success. Among the focus topics EEA, green education is particularly helpful to take action for the green transition and strengthen the sustainability competencies, to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to change the mentality and behavioral patterns regarding sustainability, in line with SDG target 4.7 “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development[…]” Nevertheless, environmental sustainability does not appear as a key feature of the educational policies in Europe, which is why the EU recommendation on learning for green transition could be a useful roadmap for the Member States for the development of sustainability knowledge and skills. As for life skills, the EU has launched two important initiatives, the first with the Key Competences for Lifelong Learning which identified eight key competencies for personal fulfillment and a sustainable lifestyle.

More importantly, the EU has adopted the EU Skills Agenda, a five-year plan to develop citizens’ skills in light of the environmental and digital transition the EU is undergoing. Information on skills, their promotion, and their knowledge is essential for educators to design the appropriate curricula and educate future generations about a more sustainable way of living and doing business. But how can it be done if one’s own needs and values are at odds with community needs? If the right thing to do is frustrating, is it still the right thing to do? Imagine a deeply impoverished household, it may value the goal of ending poverty as more important than acting for climate change. The dissonance between individual goals and the holistic approach of SDGs puts pressure on the individual’s rational and emotional capabilities to reflect and consequently act. This may undermine the achievements of the SDGs as a whole, jeopardizing the goals that individuals value less.

EI is crucial both in terms of achieving better quality and inclusive education, and an entirely new way of thinking about sustainability. It has been demonstrated that EI has a positive impact on academic performance. Two main mechanisms explain the positive correlation. A student with a high level of EI can deal more easily with negative emotions stemming from an academic setting. Students who can manage their personal and social relationships are better suited to the education environment and obtain higher marks. Emotional intelligent students may be more emphatic towards their peers, in particular disadvantaged and minority groups. Moreover, EI positively affects also job performance and access to the labor market.

In terms of support for the attainment of the SDGs, emotional resilience and pro-social behavior are the principal outcomes of EI. This is why the international community and stakeholders recognize more and more the importance of EI to achieve SDGs. Even though it has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of EI, EU policies need to do better. In education systems, EI is still not a core curricular area and member states’ implementation of measures regarding EI is still fragmented. EI programs are often left to NGOs or civil society, rather than the educational institutions themselves. More participation is needed in the decision-making process by relevant stakeholders, particularly parents which are often included in a marginal position. If children and their emotions always develop by the social system surrounding them, more frequent and impactful involvement of parents in the education of EI is essential.

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