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Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? -

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Jennifer Kahn writes in NYT Magazine:

Social-emotional learning 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.

So yes, emotional intelligence CAN be taught:

Starting in the late 19th century, the philosopher John Dewey argued against the development of purely vocational elementary schools, insisting that the true purpose of schooling was not simply to teach children a trade but to train them in deeper habits of mind, including “plasticity” (the ability to take in new information and be changed by it) and interdependence (the ability to work with others).

Social-emotional learning takes Dewey’s theory further, suggesting that all emotions — not just the right ones — are adaptive if properly managed. Studies have shown that people in a slightly sad mood are better at analyzing or editing a written document (they focus better on details), while people who are slightly angry are better able to discriminate between weak and strong arguments. The purpose of a social-emotional learning program, then, isn’t to elide emotion but to channel it: to surf the rapids rather than to be swamped by them. This can be hard to do. When we feel angry, we usually act angry — even when that makes the situation worse. The nature of emotion is that it tends to run away with us. “When a feeling is unpleasant, how are you going to handle it?” asks Stephanie Jones, a Harvard psychologist who has studied a number of social-emotional learning programs. “Do you default to an angry response, a defensive response? Or do you go into a mode that’s more information-seeking?”

Social-emotional learning programs often rely on strategies from conventional therapy, like the ability to get distance on a feeling, or to unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within it. But fostering these skills in a child is a complex undertaking. For a child to master empathy, Jones notes, she first needs to understand her own emotions: to develop a sense of what sadness, anger or disappointment feels like — its intensity and duration, its causes. That awareness is what lays the groundwork for the next step: the ability to intuit how another person might be feeling about a situation based on how you would feel in a similar circumstance.

When it comes to making social-emotional learning effective, Jones says, determining which skills can constructively be taught at what ages is “a critically important question.” So far, however, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L., and even fewer have included the kind of rigorous, controlled trials needed to prove that acquiring a specific skill produces a specific outcome over the long term. “If skills aren’t nurtured in an ongoing way,” Jones says, “it may be that those skills are lost.”

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