Schools try to teach ’emotional intelligence’

Schools are trying to teach “emotional intelligence,” writes Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times Magazine.

As the children formed a circle, (teacher James) Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.

Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.

“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.

“And what did you do? What words did you use?”

“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”

Does anyone see a problem with asking little kids to describe family problems in class?

Many “prosocial” programs promise to teach social and emotional learning, aka SEL, writes Kahn.

Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate “kits” with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. “

Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school in a low-income part of Sacramento, hopes SEL will raise low test scores. Students learn how to deal with sadness, anger and frustration. Techniques are simple: Count to five. Take a deep breath.

Kahn observed a fourth-grade class discussion.

Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.

Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.”

SEL advocates say it “can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences,” writes Kahn. They also claim “social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex,” enhancing”academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory.”

However, a U.S. Education Department analysis of seven SEL programs in 2010 “found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.”

Teaching self-control makes sense to me. But I’d feel happier if they left the prefrontal cortex out of it.

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Comments

  1. SEL advocates say it “can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences,”

    I’d love to see the actual research behind that.

    Well, if I had any confidence that any existed, rather than some half-understood and probably irrelevant thing being mis-applied.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    When an adult, not related to a kid, is prying into that kid’s defenseless psyche, I get hostile. Nobody’s freaking business, especially when teach doesn’t have a clue what to do with whatever is found there, except whatever they managed to stay awake for in some ancient PD class.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    This may or may not be a force for good, but two things seem undeniable:

    1) It’s just a little creepy.

    2) There is never going to be any coming back from the way that the word “intelligence” has been hijacked to apply to any capacity for perception, awareness, movement, or production that’s even mildly useful or beneficial.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    I’m surprised to see this as news. Daniel Goleman published the book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. It was a big best-seller. A good part of the book was about teaching EI to schoolchildren. He’s written numerous follow-ups and been involved with various businesses which purport to teach it or to provide materials, curricula, and techniques to teach it.

    • I was thinking when I saw this, “We just can’t get away from Gardner’s nonsense,” but now you’ve made me realize that even Gardner stole his nonsense from someone else.