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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teaching Emotional Literacy

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

I recently had the opportunity to appear on Science Friday with Marc Brackett, the Director of Yale's new Center for Emotional Intelligence in Education. Ira Flatow, the host, spoke with us about teaching emotional literacy in schools. Some interesting points came up that I would like to address in a Q and A.


Ira Flatow: Why should schools teach emotions? Is this really part of teachers' jobs?

Maurice Elias: When kids enter schools every day, they put many things in their lockers. But one thing they do not put in there are their emotions. They carry their emotions around all day, to every classroom, in every hallway, on the staircases, and on the bus. For some kids, this is a very heavy burden. When schools do not recognize this and act as if students are unburdened, we get the curriculum gap: what the kids get is far different from what teachers think they have delivered.

Not only that, if kids do not have the skills to understand what they are feeling and how to properly label it, and how to regulate their strong feelings when necessary, they will not be successful in the classroom. From the earliest grades, children's academic and life trajectory is affected by their ability to pick up emotional nuance. Stories cannot be properly appreciated unless characters' feelings are well understood... from Dr. Seuss onward!

History and current events become dry and disconnected facts unless enlivened by empathy and compassion and an understanding of what the individuals involved in the events were and are experiencing. And being able to work with one's classmates benefits enormously by being sensitive to signs of their feelings, knowing when to back off, knowing when they are interested, knowing when they need help or support, etc.

Can emotions be taught? Isn't it just inborn?

Like reading, math, or science, emotional literacy can be taught. Marc Brackett's RULER program is an excellent example of how children are brought along developmentally to learn and master an increasing range and depth of feelings. Many social-emotional learning programs address emotional literacy, including: Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving, I Can Problem Solve, Resolving Conflicts Creatively, Open Circle, PassageWorks, School-Connect, Tribes, Lions-Quest, PATHS, and Second Step.

But, also like reading and other subjects, it's not a quick and easy process. So when you see wonderful tools to help in the process, like the Feel and Deal deck, remember that they are exactly that: tools in a larger process. They are most useful when integrated with or as an adjunct to a systematic, curriculum-based approach to emotional literacy. They need to be addressed every year, like any other academic area we care about. There just are no valid shortcuts to building a skill as important as emotional literacy.

While it is true that we are born with a capacity to understand and express feelings, it is also true that these capacities can be developed. One way to think about it is in terms of crayons. You can walk around in life with 12 crayons, but you are much better off with a box of 48. So it is with feelings. You can walk around being able to distinguish between sad, mad, and glad. But you are much better off being able to detect and express nuances, like frustration, inspiration, elation, dejection, puzzlement, joy, uncertainty, and enthusiasm -- all variations of the basic colors of sad, mad, and glad.

But we don't have time in the curriculum to do this.

I would say that you don't have time to not do it. Research shows that systematic instruction in social-emotional and character development of about a half hour per week, well implemented, contributes greatly to classroom management and improved test score performance. As we look carefully at the Common Core and the Danielson framework, it's very clear that without mastery of emotional skills, students will not be in a position to carry out the higher-order skills necessary for classrooms to function effectively, for teachers to be evaluated at the highest levels, and for students to grasp the content with sufficient depth to be able to have it reflected in test scores and report card grades.

The bottom line is that time spent building students' emotional literacy is among the best ways to address the academic mission of schools and also prepare students for their greater missions in life.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

"But we don't have time in the curriculum to do this."

I agree that we don't have time not to do it- and that it takes creativity to figure out how to target and assess content and process at the same time. AUNE's Critical Skills Program has been doing it for 30+ years and we're still figuring it out!

One of the things that I'm becoming increasingly aware of is this:

"When kids enter schools every day, they put many things in their lockers. But one thing they do not put in there are their emotions. They carry their emotions around all day, to every classroom, in every hallway, on the staircases, and on the bus. For some kids, this is a very heavy burden. When schools do not recognize this and act as if students are unburdened, we get the curriculum gap: what the kids get is far different from what teachers think they have delivered."

We really do kids an injustice when we don't view them as whole people with lives beyond our classrooms. Teaching kids to be fully present, to be aware of their feelings and of the ways that those feelings play out in the way they respond to the world around them, requires teachers to be equally self aware. I know that I often try to multi-task and end up not being fully present with anything. Learning about mindfulness- about stopping and letting myself really attentive to what's going on around me and what I'm feeling- has been a huge part of becoming a better parent and a better teacher. I'd encourage folks to learn more about how mindfulness can help them help their students.

Selena Goldberg's picture
Selena Goldberg
Mindfulness Educator for all ages.

"If kids do not have the skills to understand what they are feeling and how to properly label it, and how to regulate their strong feelings when necessary, they will not be successful in the classroom."

Exactly! I also feel that incorporating Mindfulness in schools is an easy and effective way to shift this paradigm for the students, teachers, and schools. This is a life skill that most students are not taught, and in my opinion is one of the most important traits to becoming a healthy member of society.

My experience as a teacher of 25 years has illustrated the the dramatic effects that mindfulness skills taught in the classrooms have on increased student learning, self regulating behaviour and self esteem.

I also agree that we don't have time not to do it especially with the positive ratio of time spent to success rate it provides.

" Research shows that systematic instruction in social-emotional and character development of about a half hour per week, well implemented, contributes greatly to classroom management and improved test score performance."
A half hour of less per week of mindfulness practice can make a profound difference, and is easy to integrate into the curriculum.

Mindfulness helps students learn about themselves, their emotions, their brain, and offers application tools to work with what arises for them moment by moment. Rarely do we teach students about their emotional intelligence in this manner. To me it is as important as teaching them to care for their teeth.

MIndfulness enables them to more deeply understand what is happening when they experience their emotions which can cause them to be distracted, negatively effect their learning abilities and attention, as well as adding to states of stress, depression, anxiety, and ill health. There is so much research on this on the internet for anyone who is interested in learning more.

Mindfulness offers an antidote to the above as it can offer easy teachable skills and tools that are fun to learn. They are also life long skills that can help us all learn to stay focused, be in optimal learning states, and process our emotional states in a healthy constructive manner.

Whatsallthis's picture
Whatsallthis
Parent of a special needs high school student

All of the ideas presented apply in triplicate for my "high functioning" asperger's son. His default mode is anxiety... and the diagnosis was missed until 6th grade, by which time his distaste for school was quite entrenched. Emotional intelligence education in the early years might have helped reduce the trauma school inflicted upon him - and, not incidentally, that which he inflicted upon his teachers.

bob dobbs's picture

We are creating the weakest generation of children and to some degree parents our country has ever witnessed. Emotions are a weakness that we must learn to turn off.

Life is not easy and it never will be. You will fail and will fail more then you succeed. Your failures and hardships will mold you into a strong individual

Linda Kardamis's picture
Linda Kardamis
middle school math teacher in Ohio - I blog at www.teach4theheart.com

I agree that teaching kids how to handle the various emotions that inevitably arise is very important. The issues will impact the classroom naturally, so there's not necessarily a need to plan it into the curriculum. All we have to do is take advantage of the opportunities that come up - both in a class setting and on-on-one.

I will say, though, that trying to teach students how to correctly handle difficult emotions will only be so successful when approached through a purely secular standpoint. Students need to understand the morality of their decisions and ultimately to have a relationship with God for lasting, real success. It's a shame that our school systems no longer allow this.

Dor's picture
Dor
Ninth and tenth grade English teacher from Long Island, NY

Emotional literacy is particularly important for children and teens because their brains are not fully developed and they do not have the impulse control that adults have. An understanding of their feelings helps them to make better choices and have more controlled reactions.

Maurice J. Elias's picture

Emotions and Asperger's
I have worked with Sandra Harris, the director of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers, to design programs for students with Asperger's and related ASD's that kept them in the school, vs. specialized placements. Training in all aspect of emotions were a key part of that, as well as concomitant work with parents in the home to reinforce the skill development being done in the school, and social skills groups in the school to reinforce skill development with peers. My point in mentioning this is that it's never too late to make progress. Earlier starts and continuous focus make the largest difference, but looking forward from where one stands, there is progress to be made. We found that it was hard to predict the rate of gain-- there were times we were pleasantly surprised!

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