Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?
By JENNIFER KAHN
11 September 2013
New York Times
One day last spring, James Wade sat cross-legged on the carpet and called his kindergarten class to order. Lanky and soft-spoken, Wade has a gentle charisma well suited to his role as a teacher of small children: steady, rather than exuberant. When a child performs a requested task, like closing the door after recess, he will often acknowledge the moment by murmuring, “Thank you, sweet pea,” in a mild Texas drawl.
As the children formed a circle, Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.
Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.
“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.
“And what did you do? What words did you use?”
“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”
Wade nodded slowly, then looked around the room. “What do you think? Does that sound like a good thing to say?” When the kids nodded vigorously, Wade clapped his hands once. “O.K., let’s practice. Play like I’m your mommy.” Scooting into the center of the circle, he gave the boy, Reedhom, a small toy bear to stand in for the iPhone, then began to berate him in a ridiculous booming voice. “Lalalala!” Wade hollered, looming overhead in a goofy parody of parental frustration. “Why are you doing that, Reedhom? Reedhom, why?” In the circle, the other kids rocked back and forth in delight. One or two impulsively begin to crawl in Reedhom’s direction, as if joining a game.
Still slightly teary, Reedhom began to giggle. Abruptly, Wade held up a finger. “Now, we talked about this. What can Reedhom do?” Recollecting himself, Reedhom sat up straight. “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me,” he announced firmly.
“Good,” Wade said. “And maybe your mommy will say: ‘I’m sorry, Reedhom. I had to go somewhere in a hurry, and I got a little mad. I’m sorry.’ ”
Reedhom solemnly accepted the apology — then beamed as he shook Wade’s hand.
Wade’s approach — used schoolwide at Garfield Elementary, in Oakland, Calif. — is part of a strategy known as social-emotional learning, which is based on the idea that emotional skills are crucial to academic performance.
“Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”
Once a small corner of education theory, S.E.L. has gained traction in recent years, driven in part by concerns over school violence, bullying and teen suicide. But while prevention programs tend to focus on a single problem, the goal of social-emotional learning is grander: to instill a deep psychological intelligence that will help children regulate their emotions.
For children, Brackett notes, school is an emotional caldron: a constant stream of academic and social challenges that can generate feelings ranging from loneliness to euphoria. Educators and parents have long assumed that a child’s ability to cope with such stresses is either innate — a matter of temperament — or else acquired “along the way,” in the rough and tumble of ordinary interaction. But in practice, Brackett says, many children never develop those crucial skills. “It’s like saying that a child doesn’t need to study English because she talks with her parents at home,” Brackett told me last spring. “Emotional skills are the same. A teacher might say, ‘Calm down!’ — but how exactly do you calm down when you’re feeling anxious? Where do you learn the skills to manage those feelings?”
A growing number of educators and psychologists now believe that the answer to that question is in school. George Lucas’s Edutopia foundation has lobbied for the teaching of social and emotional skills for the past decade; the State of Illinois passed a bill in 2003 making “social and emotional learning” a part of school curriculums. Thousands of schools now use one of the several dozen programs, including Brackett’s own, that have been approved as “evidence-based” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit. All told, there are now tens of thousands of emotional-literacy programs running in cities nationwide.
The theory that kids need to learn to manage their emotions in order to reach their potential grew out of the research of a pair of psychology professors — John Mayer, at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, at Yale. In the 1980s, Mayer and Salovey became curious about the ways in which emotions communicate information, and why some people seem more able to take advantage of those messages than others. While outlining the set of skills that defined this “emotional intelligence,” Salovey realized that it might be even more influential than he had originally suspected, affecting everything from problem solving to job satisfaction: “It was like, this is predictive!”
In the years since, a number of studies have supported this view. So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier.
This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.”
Should social-emotional learning prove successful, in other words, it could generate a string of benefits that far exceeds a mere bump in test scores. This prospect has led to some giddiness among researchers. Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, has lauded emotional literacy as “the missing piece” in American education.
But finding ways to measure emotional awareness — never mind its effects — is tricky. It’s also still unclear whether S.E.L. programs create the kind of deep and lasting change they aspire to. The history of education reform is rife with failures: promising programs that succeed in studies, only to falter in the real world.
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