Tapping into the Social Brain to Tackle Classroom Incivility: Emotional and Social Intelligence

Tapping into the Social Brain to Tackle Classroom Incivility: Emotional and Social Intelligence

By: Harumi Kimura

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Language teachers regularly put their students into pairs and groups, hoping that they will be active in their interaction. They hope that their students will have ample time for attentive listening, make use of speaking opportunities, negotiate for meaning, and exchange ideas in another language. They believe that, through small group activities, their students can use the language more, develop accuracy, fluency, and confidence, and learn to become proficient users of the language. These benefits of pair-work and groupwork (henceforth “small group work”) are appealing to teachers and in most foreign language learning situations; they are practically the only way to have students practice the L2.

Harumi Kimura’s students at Miyagi Women’s University before the pandemic.

However, the potential benefits of small group work in L2 learning may not be as easily achieved as most teachers naïvely expect, especially when their students are not willing to participate in the activity or work cooperatively with others. The measures we can take to tackle these problems come down to being able to tap into students’ social brain and “to create with others joint intentions and joint commitments in cooperative endeavors” (Tomasello, 2009, p. xiii). You may say this is just pie in the sky in the real world. Maybe so, but let me explain anyway why I think this is the way to go and why I believe it is reasonable.

Students’ Disrespectful Behaviors and Coping

Five years ago, I investigated how students perceive and deal with peers’ unfavorable, problematic attitudes and behaviors in L2 classrooms in Japan (Kimura, 2015). Researchers have named them incivility (Bjorklund & Rehling, 2010). I have been studying and implementing cooperative learning (Jacobs et al., 2002) in L2 classrooms. I believe that fundamental cooperative principles such as individual accountability (everybody should contribute to the group) and positive interdependence (members of the group should depend on each other for the group to succeed) are key concepts to have small groups function effectively, but I also know that cooperative learning is neither a panacea nor even a partial remedy: The principles do not magically transform classroom practices or the atmosphere (Jacobs & Kimura, 2013). First of all, activities should be planned with thought, but even when activities are planned with the above-mentioned principles in mind and employed within a good plan, the plan does not always work out as expected and group members do not seem to be active or happy. Members sit together in close proximity, with the learning materials on their desks, but some pairs or groups just sit silently, without much engagement. They are apparently reluctant to learn and they seem to waste their learning opportunity. I wanted to find out what partners and groupmates think about peer reluctance and how they cope with it.

First of all, I found that Japanese university students did not like it when their partner or groupmates were disrespectful or freeriding on others’ work and not contributing to the group (Kimura, 2015). Students were likely to be concerned about two things: a) the emotional well-being of their reluctant partners and b) fairness in terms of equal/unequal participation. They were also unhappy when their peers were not listening to them or were using group time to do homework for other classes. The active members wanted to work together and complete the task assigned to the pair/group. On the other hand, they cared less when their partner or groupmates came to class late or without doing homework. These behaviors were not viewed favorably, but they did not seem to damage their interpersonal relations much. Student perception of bad attitudes and bad behaviors primarily concerned their social well-being: whether or not members were respectful of each other.

In the same study, I also found that students often used side conversations to get their reluctant partners involved in the cooperative work. Unfortunately, side conversations annoy most teachers. Teachers normally take them as a bad, disruptive behavior and students know this. However, some students reported that they often started their small group work with a side conversation to create social harmony before starting the target interaction for learning. Other strategies included demonstrating good learning behaviors to motivate or pressure less motivated students, and showing understanding to those who looked tired, sleepy, or unwilling to participate. Through these socializing attempts, some students appealed to their peers to participate, while at the same time demonstrating support and sympathy.

On the other hand, some students are hesitant in encouraging their reluctant peers. Some even gave up working together or sharing the workload. As we can see, students cope with peer incivility in different ways, so I wondered what makes this difference. I made a seemingly reasonable, but speculative, guess that some students were more emotionally and/or socially intelligent than others. Inspired by a study by Gkonou and Mercer (2015), who investigated L2 teachers’ emotional and social intelligence and their classroom management skills, I decided to conduct a pilot study with Japanese L2 learners on relationships between students’ emotional and social intelligence on the one hand, and incivility coping on the other. I planned to examine what learner characteristics are related to positive coping strategies.

Emotional and Social Intelligence

Daniel Goleman made the idea of emotional intelligence (EI) popular among the general public (Goleman, 1995, 1998). He argues that successful learning depends not only on abilities such as memory and logical thinking, but also on other qualities, i.e., EI. He defines EI as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships” (1998, p. 317). What is special about his definition is (a) EI has the motivational aspect in his conceptualization and (b) it concerns both one’s own emotions and others’.

Social intelligence (SI) is closely linked to emotional intelligence, but it focuses on social interactions and relationships, and high SI contributes to building rapport with other people (Goleman, 2006). Conceptually, SI is similar to interpersonal intelligence in Gardner’s multiple intelligences (MI) theory (Gardner, 1983). Gardner’s theory rejects, as EI does, the unitary concept of intelligence that people usually associate with IQ tests, and promotes other strengths people do not usually call intelligences. In fact, SI is similar to what cooperative learning scholars call collaborative skills: the skills people need to perform constructive dialogue with others. Among the skills are listening attentively, offering suggestions, praising others, and taking turns appropriately. Buhrmester et al. (1988) call a collection of those skills “interpersonal competence.”

I wanted to know a little bit more in detail than my gut feeling that supportive students deal with difficult peers in wise ways. While EI and SI are still the focus of debate (e.g., Waterhouse, 2006), I decided to use these constructs to evaluate the ability of students to deal with reluctant peers. I followed the example of Gkounou and Mercer (2015), who investigated teacher characteristics, and conducted a pilot study to investigate the links, or associations, of proposed dimensions of emotional and social intelligences with L2 classroom incivility coping strategies.

Dimensions of Emotional and Social Intelligence and Incivility Coping

Gkonou and Mercer (2015) identified five EI dimensions, following Gardner (1988), who considers emotional intelligence to be multi-faceted and views the construct as a combination of related facets: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. The researchers also identified five SI dimensions, following Buhrmester et al. (1988). See the table below for short descriptions or example behaviors of EI and SI dimensions. Each of the 10 components was measured by five items in their study.

Emotional Intelligence
Self-awarenessreflecting on their strengths and weaknesses
Self-regulationmanaging their own emotions and behaviors
Motivationembracing positive views toward life
Empathyexperiencing the feelings of others like their own
Social Skillsparticipating in interaction & handling interpersonal relationships
Social Intelligence
Initiationstarting social interaction
Negative Assertionpresenting opposing views
Disclosureshowing others what they are like
Emotional Supportlistening attentively to others & demonstrating support
Conflict Managementdisagreeing politely & interrupting appropriately

For the pilot study, I wrote ten items to measure incivility coping, i.e., how willing to be supportive of reluctant peers students feel and to what extent they act accordingly. Five of them were meant to tap into active coping attitudes and behaviors and another five into passive coping measures. One example item among the active measures reads: “I try to get my peers to work with me even when they look unmotivated.” In this article, I will just report three statistically significant correlations between EI and SI domains and active incivility coping. (I will publish the complete results of this pilot study with the larger-scale study I am planning to conduct in the near future elsewhere. Thank you for your patience!)

First, active incivility coping was associated with two domains of EI, empathy and social skills, and with one domain of SI, conflict management. Furthermore, these three domains are highly correlated with each other. I make no claim for causality, but these tentative results likely demonstrated that empathetic students with social skills in general and conflict management skills in particular were more supportive of reluctant peers. Don’t you think this is a bit more precise than the teacher intuition that supportive students deal with difficult peers in wise ways? I hope you do. Second, the results suggested that EI and SI possibly overlap to some extent: Does the following statement sound like a tautology? One of the SI domains, conflict management, is considered to be part of social skills, one of the EI domains. It is no wonder that researchers want to avoid exploring these constructs, saying that such conceptualizations do not seem sound or scientific. However, as a classroom teacher, I think these ideas are useful to discuss with regard to what environment teachers need to create in their teaching.

With these tentative findings in mind, just for a trial, I conducted an informal interview with one participant student who scored high in all three domains. Let me call her “Misato” here. Misato usually asks her unmotivated peers questions like “What’s the matter?” “What’s bothering you?” or “Is anything troubling you?” She talks to the students sincerely. She just wants to know the reason they do not engage. She does not act judgmentally. She observes that her peers usually start talking to her and sharing their reasons with her if she takes the time. I think Misato offers mindful, supportive listening for the sake of understanding others, or building relationships (Bodie & Jones, 2012; Srader, 2014). She is interested in whether there is a reason for her peer’s negative attitudes and whether her peer is willing to share it with her. She cares less about what the reason is. What she cares about is the sincerity of her peer’s talk so that she can see herself and her peer as an “us” (Tomasello, 2009) and create team spirit. Now, finally, I think I can set the stage for discussing the topic of this issue, the social brain, and argue for tribal classrooms. Let me explain what I mean.

Social Brain and Tribal Classrooms

Just as neurons connect with other neurons to survive and thrive, people connect to other people and make relationships to survive and thrive (Cozolino, 2013). In the previous example, Misato makes efforts to connect to her reluctant peer and attune to that person’s needs. Her reluctant peer usually responds to her. Why does Misato try to connect? Because she cares for her peer. Why does her peer respond? Because she knows she is cared for (and appreciated). After chatting about this and that, they get down to business and foster bonding through working together to complete the assigned classroom task. For human beings, others are their primary environment for further brain development, and secure and trusting relationships optimize neuroplasticity. While students are establishing mutually care-for and be-cared-for relationships between them, they are also contributing to the configuration of each other’s brains because such experiences, one after another, have synergetic effects on the brain and continue shaping and reshaping the architecture of their brain systems. In fact, this is learning. Cozolino promotes “a tribal classroom” (p. 11), where he thinks “social-emotional learning” (p. 18) takes place.

Since early times, people have developed primitive social instincts through building human connections. These instincts have been nurtured in their families, communities, and tribes. Living in the modern world, people have an inner drive to belong to some social groups to feel safe and protected, and their memberships have significant effects on their well-being and learning. Social psychologists, Baumeister and Leary (1995) call this drive the “need to belong” and argue that people are fundamentally motivated to establish and maintain interpersonal bonds with others. In the framework of self-determination theory, Richard M. Ryan (1995) with his colleague, Edward L. Deci, identified three innate human needs for optimal human functioning and growth: autonomy, competence, and belonging. Besides being able to make decisions on their own and achieve mastery, people need to be attached to others and accepted by the others in the group they belong to. That, too, drives their quest for mastery. Cozolino (2013) joins the choir and says, “the brain is the social organ requiring positive human connection as much as food and water” (p. 4). So, we need to stop seeing the classroom as a collection of individual students and start seeing it as a tribe.

"We need to stop seeing the classroom as a collection of individual students and start seeing it as a tribe. "
Harumi Kimura
TT Author

I believe a tribal classroom for social-emotional learning can be built in our contemporary school settings. We need a caring, compassionate teacher who is eager to give priority to promoting and maintaining social connections among her students. She knows that our brain has evolved as a social organ, “a highly specialized organ of adaptation” (Cozolino, p. 22). A secure learning environment with trusting relationships in close connection with others, including teacher-student and student-student connections, can trigger nurturing and stimulating interactions that lead to brain growth and learning readiness. Cognitive growth and emotional growth come together. In fact, they are interdependent. Also indispensable to a tribal classroom are emotionally and socially intelligent students. They do not just appear out of the blue. They become active and grow when the conditions encourage the tribal classroom.

We can nurture a cooperative atmosphere and raise collaborative students in L2 classrooms. We teach language, right? We do not have to tell them explicitly to learn how to cooperate. We can just plan activities so that students can use set phrases with collaborative language functions (Jacobs et al., 2002). To invite silent peers, for example, they can involve them by saying things like “What do you think, ______? You’ve been quiet. Anything wrong?” To show sympathy, they can say “You look tired. You must have worked till late last night.” We can also teach normative language such as “We have to start working together. Why don’t we _________?” Then, they can learn ways to ask for joint commitment nicely.

Last but not least, we also need to start acting like Misato, asking reluctant students if they are okay. We need to reward those students who do so, and sometimes turn a blind eye to side talk. After all, it might be just the interaction needed to bring that isolated individual into the tribe and eventually make the tribe grow as a group where individual students learn in a safe and caring environment and each of them thrives. In short, we too need to nurture “us” attitudes.


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Harumi Kimura (EdD.) is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She studied L2 listening anxiety in her doctoral study, and her academic interests include second language acquisition, learner development, learner psychology, multilingualism, and cooperative learning. She thinks  that her mission  is “to make learning another language less intimidating and a bit more rewarding plus fun.”

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