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.

Poverty is linked to poor planning skills

Low-income students aren’t as good at planning, focus and attention as more advantaged classmates, concludes a study in Child Development.

Third graders’ ability to solve a puzzle predicted fifth-grade math and reading achievement, even when IQ was taken into account, reports Education Week.

towerb-400.jpg

Cornell researchers asked children to play  ”Tower of Hanoi,” which requires rebuilding a stack of rings of decreasing size on one of two other poles, moving only one ring at a time and always keeping a smaller ring on top of a larger one. “The puzzle requires students to plan their steps out in advance to avoid backing themselves into a corner, and being able to complete the puzzle quickly and with the minimal number of moves also requires focus and attention skills,” Ed Week.

The greater the level of poverty students experienced in their early childhood, the worse they performed on the puzzle.

Researchers blamed the stress of growing up in poverty.

“Low-income families are bombarded with numerous psychological and physical risk factors: … chaotic living environments, relentless financial pressure, familial disorder and instability, and social isolation,” the authors noted. “These circumstances could lead to an inability to focus on everyday tasks necessary for the development of planning skills.”

Surely, there’s also a correlation between poor planning skills, school failure, poorly timed pregnancy and poverty.

I’m not sure I could solve that puzzle.

Plan, persist and perform for college success

What aspects of background, personality or achievement predict high grades in college? Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham analyzes a meta-analysis of research on three categories of predictors: three demographic factors (age, sex, socioeconomic status); five traditional measures of cognitive ability or prior academic achievement (intelligence measures, high school GPA, SAT or ACT, A level points), and 42 non-intellectual measures of personality, motivation, learning strategies, approach to learning and psychosocial contextual influences. (He’s got a chart of all the factors.)

As they put the data together, the most important predictors of college grade point average are: your grades in high school, your score on the SAT or ACT, the extent to which you plan for and target specific grades, and your ability to persist in challenging academic situations.

“Broad personality traits, most motivation factors and learning strategies matter less than I would have guessed,” Willingham writes. Demographic and psychosocial factors and “approach to learning” didn’t matter at all.