Putting on a pretend “magic cape” is one of the steps first graders at Truman School in New Haven, Connecticut, use to soften the hurt of put-downs.Credit: Edutopia
- At a middle school in Puerto Rico, students work in teams on science projects. When there's an angry disagreement between two boys on one team, they don't argue or get into a fight, they go to separate parts of the room to calm down before coming back together with another student, a mediator, to resolve the conflict.
- A class of second graders in Connecticut starts the morning off in a "feelings circle," where the boys and girls tell how they feel that day, and why. Says one boy, "I'm really happy today. My father said I could have a bike for Christmas." A girl: "My grandma is in the hospital, and I'm sad about it."
- A sixth-grade boy in a California school has a history of getting mad and starting fights. Other kids had started to avoid him. But in his class, he's learned a method called "Keep Calm" that he uses when he feels himself start to lose his cool: he steps into the hallway, thinks about how he can control his reactions, what he really wants and positive ways to get them.
Hundreds of Programs
Each of these classes, in its own way, offers children valuable lessons in emotional intelligence, the ability to manage feelings and relationships. When I wrote the 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, there were fewer than a half dozen such school programs that I could manage to track down. Today, just five years later, there are hundreds of these programs in tens of thousands of schools -- not just throughout the United States but around the world.
When I gave a lecture recently in Shanghai, for instance, I was surprised to hear that sixty schools there were offering children an emotional intelligence-based curriculum. I've heard about many such programs in country after country.
My book, I'm pleased to say, has been one seed for the growth of these programs. My main argument was that the elements of emotional intelligence -- being aware of our feelings and handling disruptive emotions well, empathizing with how others feel, and being skillful in handling our relationships -- are crucial abilities for effective living. Because data from around the world suggest that these human abilities may be on the decline in children in modern economies, my book proposed we should be teaching the basics of emotional intelligence in schools.
That message alone, however, would not have been enough to drive the spread of these programs worldwide. We have been fortunate to have hundreds of dedicated educators who have taken it upon themselves to develop high-quality curricula in what is now called "social and emotional learning" or SEL -- the basic lessons of emotional intelligence in the form of school-based programs.
The best SEL programs teach the full spectrum of EI abilities, from self-awareness to social problem-solving. They repeat the lessons over the full course of a child's school years in a developmentally appropriate way and fit seamlessly into standard curricula in ways that enhance other topics without stealing time from them.
That SEL has flourished owes much to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a clearinghouse for quality programs that helps schools around the world identify and implement appropriate curricula. When I co-founded CASEL in 1994 with Eileen Growald, Tim Shriver, and a small group of educators and psychologists, it was based in the Child Studies Center at Yale University. Since then it has moved, with its director, Roger Weissberg, to its present home at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I invite you to visit its Web site to find out the latest news on social and emotional learning and to learn more about the close to 200 different programs available.
The concept of emotional intelligence -- and the rationale for SEL -- was based on several strands of scientific research. For example, new methods of brain research had revealed that the centers in the brain that regulate emotion continue to grow anatomically into adolescence. And while we once had thought that a child's emotional abilities were largely determined by experiences in the first few years of life, brain researchers were finding that the centers for emotional regulation continued to take shape throughout the school years.
Data also showed that helping children gain abilities in self-awareness, in managing distressing emotions, in empathy, and in relationship skills could act as an inoculation against a range of perils: violence and crime, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancies, eating disorders, and depression, to name just a few.
A 'Proper Education'
In the five years since I wrote Emotional Intelligence, these scientific discoveries have been supported by new findings. For instance, brain researchers now accept that our repeated experiences help shape the brain itself and that this "neural plasticity" continues throughout life. Childhood experiences have special potency in this process. This means that the school years are a neurological window of opportunity, a chance to ensure that all children will get the right experiences to help them flourish in their jobs and careers, as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, as citizens of our communities.
The sobering reality of the shootings at Columbine High School and the string of related tragedies in our schools highlights the need for us to offer this education of the emotions to our nation's children. I think of the words of the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus, who wrote centuries ago, "The best hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its children." His words ring ever more true today.