Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching Emotional Literacy

September 9, 2013
Photo credit: iStockphoto

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.

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