For those familiar with Daniel Goleman’s probing articles for The New York Times on the rapidly advancing research frontiers in behavioral and brain science, his latest book will be a welcome application of that work to problems of teaching and nurturing the young. In Emotional Intelligence, published this month, the Harvard University-trained psychologist examines not only the biophysiological mechanisms that govern expressions of passion and reason, but also the enhanced importance to future success that a child’s emotional competence--self-control, social awareness, interpersonal skills--has assumed.
The following excerpts are from a concluding chapter on how new scientific understandings are being incorporated into classroom programs:
It’s a strange roll call, going around the circle of 15 5th graders sitting Indian-style on the floor. As a teacher calls their names the students respond not with the vacant “Here” standard in schools, but instead call out a number that indicates how they feel; one means low spirits, 10 high energy.
Today spirits are high:
“Ten: I’m jazzed, it’s Friday.”
“Nine: excited, a little nervous.”
“Ten: peaceful, happy ... “
It’s a class in Self Science at the Nueva Learning Center, a school retrofitted into what used to be the grand manse of the Crocker family, the dynasty that founded one of San Francisco’s biggest banks. Now the building, which resembles a miniature version of the San Francisco Opera House, houses a private school that offers what may be a model course in emotional intelligence.
The subject in Self Science is feelings--your own and those that erupt in relationships. The topic, by its very nature, demands that teachers and students focus on the emotional fabric of a child’s life--a focus that is determinedly ignored in almost every other classroom in America. The strategy here includes using the tensions and traumas of children’s lives as the topic of the day. Teachers speak to real issues--hurt over being left out, envy, disagreements that could escalate into a schoolyard battle. As Karen Stone McCown, developer of the Self Science Curriculum and director of Nueva, put it, “Learning doesn’t take place in isolation from kids’ feelings. Being emotionally literate is as important for learning as instruction in math and reading.”
Self Science is a pioneer, an early harbinger of an idea that is spreading to schools coast to coast. (For more information on emotional-literacy programs, see the note at the end of this excerpt on page 40.) Names for these classes range from “social development” to “life skills” to “social and emotional learning.” Some, referring to Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences, use the term “personal intelligences.” The common thread is the goal of raising the level of social and emotional competence in children as a part of their regular education--not just something taught remedially to children who are faltering and identified as “troubled,” but a set of skills and understandings essential for every child.
The emotional-literacy courses have some remote roots in the affective-education movement of the 1960s. The thinking then was that psychological and motivational lessons were more deeply learned if they involved an immediate experience of what was being taught conceptually. The emotional-literacy movement, though, turns the term affective education inside out--instead of using affect to educate, it educates affect itself.
More immediately, many of these courses and the momentum for their spread come from an ongoing series of school-based prevention programs, each targeting a specific problem: teen smoking, drug abuse, pregnancy, dropping out, and most recently violence. ... [T]he W. T. Grant Consortium’s study of [such] prevention programs found [that] they are far more effective when they teach a core of emotional and social competences, such as impulse control, managing anger, and finding creative solutions to social predicaments. From this principle a new generation of interventions has emerged. ...
[I]nterventions designed to target the specific deficits in emotional and social skills that undergird problems such as aggression or depression can be highly effective as buffers for children. But those well-designed interventions, in the main, have been run by research psychologists as experiments. The next step is to take the lessons learned from such highly focused programs and generalize them as a preventive measure for the entire school population, taught by ordinary teachers.
This more sophisticated and more effective approach to prevention includes information about problems such as aids, drugs, and the like, at the points in youngsters’ lives when they are beginning to face them. But its main, ongoing subject is the core competence that is brought to bear on any of these specific dilemmas: emotional intelligence.
This new departure in bringing emotional literacy into schools makes emotions and social life themselves topics, rather than treating these most compelling facets of a child’s day as irrelevant intrusions or, when they lead to eruptions, relegating them to occasional disciplinary trips to the guidance counselor or the principal’s office.
The classes themselves may at first glance seem uneventful, much less a solution to the dramatic problems they address. But that is largely because, like good child rearing at home, the lessons imparted are small but telling, delivered regularly and over a sustained period of years. That is how emotional learning becomes ingrained; as experiences are repeated over and over, the brain reflects them as strengthened pathways, neural habits to apply in times of duress, frustration, hurt. And while the everyday substance of emotional-literacy classes may look mundane, the outcome--decent human beings--is more critical to our future than ever. ...
In use for close to 20 years, the Self Science curriculum stands as a model for the teaching of emotional intelligence. The lessons sometimes are surprisingly sophisticated; as Nueva’s director, Karen Stone McCown, told me, “When we teach about anger, we help kids understand that it is almost always a secondary reaction and to look for what’s underneath--are you hurt? jealous? Our kids learn that you always have choices about how you respond to emotion, and the more ways you know to respond to an emotion, the richer your life can be.”
A list of the contents of Self Science is an almost point-for-point match with the ingredients of emotional intelligence--and with the core skills recommended as primary prevention for the range of pitfalls threatening children. The topics taught include self-awareness, in the sense of recognizing feelings and building a vocabulary for them, and seeing the links between thoughts, feelings, and reactions; knowing if thoughts or feelings are ruling a decision; seeing the consequences of alternative choices; and applying these insights to decisions about such issues as drugs, smoking, and sex. Self-awareness also takes the form of recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, and seeing yourself in a positive but realistic light (and so avoiding a common pitfall of the self-esteem movement).
Another emphasis is managing emotions: realizing what is behind a feeling (for example, the hurt that triggers anger), and learning ways to handle anxieties, anger, and sadness. Still another emphasis is on taking responsibility for decisions and actions, and following through on commitments.
A key social ability is empathy, understanding others’ feelings and taking their perspective, and respecting differences in how people feel about things. Relationships are a major focus, including learning to be a good listener and question-asker; distinguishing between what someone says or does and your own reactions and judgments; being assertive rather than angry or passive; and learning the arts of cooperation, conflict resolution, and negotiating compromise.
There are no grades given in Self Science; life itself is the final exam. But at the end of the 8th grade, as students are about to leave Nueva for high school, each is given a Socratic examination, an oral test in Self Science. One question from a recent final: “Describe an appropriate response to help a friend solve a conflict over someone pressuring them to try drugs, or over a friend who likes to tease.” Or, “What are some healthy ways to deal with stress, anger, and fear?”
Were he alive today, Aristotle, so concerned with emotional skillfulness, might well approve.
More information on emotional-literacy courses is available from the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, P.O. Box 207900, 230 South Frontage Road, New Haven, Conn. 06520-7900.
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1995 edition of Education Week as Beyond IQ