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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, October 31 2022

Emotional Stupidity

Back in the mid 90’s I was working as principal of a school for students with severe behaviours, in fact they had to have the diagnosis of conduct disorder or oppositional defiance to be enrolled.  It was in this time Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book ‘Emotional Intelligence – Why it Matters More than IQ’ came out.  Unless you read the book you would get the superficial message of the book was something like ‘trust your instincts when in a difficult situation’.  I will give a brief formal description of emotional intelligence below but I really think the underpinning message is trust your emotions!


Almost every day I witnessed the emotional turmoil students in my care have them make the types of behaviour decisions that ruined their time in mainstream school.  At that time I felt someone needed to write another book with a title like “Emotional Stupidity – Why IQ is not a Consideration’.  I still think there is a call for such a book.


So, what is emotional intelligence?  The most common definitions can be summed up by Wikipedia as being ‘the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions’.   This ability is referring to the management of both your own emotions and those of others.  The elements that define emotional intelligence are:

  • Self-awareness – understanding how your behaviour impacts on others
  • Self-regulation – having strong boundaries that allow you to stay relatively calm
  • Motivation – having the drive to solve conflicts
  • Empathy – understanding and having compassion for the other(s) circumstances
  • Social skills – being able to engage with others in a positive way


My problem with the concept of emotional intelligence is that it makes the unrealistic assumption that we all have a strong positive sense of self.  The evidence for the existence of emotional intelligence is the correlation between characteristics of successful people and the elements outlined above.  I would argue that the characteristics of successful people depend on the environmental conditions of early childhood.  This is no form of intelligence it is just the luck of the draw.


Children who have been abused and/or neglected in early childhood develop a sense of self that reflects their environment.  The emotional elements of these kids is the mirror opposite of those that define emotional intelligence:

  • Lack of any self-awareness – Any self-awareness these children have is that they are worthless.  They experience what I describe as toxic shame (see Newsletter 114 - ‘Toxic Shame’ - 03 July 2017); they don’t think they make mistakes they believe they are a mistake!
  • Inability to self-regulate – In functioning families, when a small child hurts themselves, physically or emotionally they are soothed, held and reassured.  This external regulation is learned and these kids learn to regulate themselves.  On the other hand in an abusive family, when the child is hurt they are at best ignored but all to often told to ‘grow up’ or ‘stop that crying’ or ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’!  When you see these kids in your classroom you will notice how they take so much more time to settle after they have been provoked!
  • Un-motivated – Because of their toxic sense of self they have learned not to try; why would they?  Since early childhood they have had the belief of being unworthy and this has been reinforced by their significant adults so why try.  Further, the behaviours they do seek to do are those that will protect them from further pain.  They believe they do not deserve nor do they think they have the ability to succeed.
  • No ability to empathise – The fifteen criteria that define Conduct Disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) almost all describe the behaviour of someone who has no empathy.  These characteristics are:
    • Aggressive behaviour toward others and animals
    • Frequent physical altercations with others
    • Use of a weapon to harm others
    • Deliberately physically cruel to other people
    • Deliberately physically cruel to animals
    • Involvement in confrontational economic order crime- e.g., mugging
    • Has perpetrated a forcible sex act on another
    • Property destruction by arson
    • Property destruction by other means
    • Has engaged in non-confrontational economic order crime- e.g., breaking and entering
    • Has engaged in non-confrontational retail theft, e.g., shoplifting
    • Disregarded parent's curfew prior to age 13
    • Has run away from home at least two times
    • Has been truant before age 13

In summary the DSM – 5 concludes with the following qualifier ‘Limited prosocial emotions, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, callousness, unconcerned about performance, shallow or deficient affect’


Teaching those students who have missed out on a nurturing childhood is difficult.  We have to understand that the significance of the emotional content of any decision-making increases proportionately to the level of stress experienced.  The following diagram shown below illustrates this phenomena.  This was first published by Bruce Perry well known expert on the effect of early childhood trauma.  This shows that as the student becomes more aroused their mental state moves from being able to consider abstract choices for their behaviour on to being completely overwhelmed and being unable to do anything other than behave in the manner they acquired in early childhood. 

Their emotional state overpowers any cognitive consideration which is only really available when the child is in a state of calm; a condition rarely experienced for these children.

This inability to control the emotional side of their ‘intelligence’ is the reason the myriad of cognitive interventions that have been introduced in our schools to deal with dysfunctional behaviour fail.  This is not emotional ‘stupidity’ on their part it is more like an emotional disability.

By understanding this you will appreciate the approach we advocate when supporting these kids in our classrooms.  We need to provide a calm, inclusive learning environment that has well defined structure, understood expectations and carried out with strong positive relationships at least between the teacher and the student!

Posted by: AT 06:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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