Thursday, September 12, 2013

Emotions Matter

As children get settled into the school year, make new friends and become adjusted to the new homework load they also become overwhelmed with an assortment of emotions. Every new year at school can be like starting over. They have new teachers, new skills to learn and new friends to make. How can we make this transition as successful as possible? How can we make sure children thrive and are part of an engaged learning environment? One way is through teaching our children emotional literacy.

Photo by: Woodley Wonderworks

          A child's emotional intelligence can make a difference in their school experience and how they interact with others. According to Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, New Haven, it is difficult for this subject to be held in high regard in schools when it is in competition with other mandates. The rigorous requirements put upon teachers do not offer time to teach emotional literacy. 

          In an interview on National Public Radio, Brackett and Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and director of the Social and Emotional Learning Lab there, spoke about why it is so important to teach emotional literacy and how it can be applied within the education system.

          Emotional intelligence is defined as the process of children learning to recognize how other people are feeling and how their actions affect others.   

          When children start learning these skills at a young age, it helps them have healthy personal relationships and allows them to get along better with others. This learning should partly begin in the classroom where a multitude of emotions arise.

          Mixed and intensified emotions are symbiotic with new experiences. According to Elias, studies show that children's abilities to learn are related to their emotional state. Now what magnitudes this is the fact that children's emotional literacy vocabulary (in other words, their ability to label a feeling with a word) is very limited. Because of this, many times they are unable to tell us how they feel or act accordingly.

          "When kids walk into a school, they put a lot of things in their lockers, but the one thing they don't put in are their feelings," said Elias. "They carry those feelings around with them every day, every classroom, in the hallway, in the lunchroom. And if we don't help them understand those feelings and know how to calm themselves down when they're upset, and in fact, frankly even calm themselves down when they're too elated, they're going to have a hard time paying attention to what's going on in the classroom."

The goal of emotional literacy is to teach children five main things summed up by the acronym: RULER

Recognizing emotions in oneself and others
Understanding where those emotions come from and the causes of emotions
Labeling emotions
Expressing emotions
Regulating emotions

Photo by: Bill Young

       However, both Brackett and Elias stress that all individuals, adults and children alike, must develop these skills. Teachers and adults need to be aware of their own emotional cues and those of the children they work with. Many teachers can mistake a child not paying attention to "boredom" or "disinterest." When in fact the child's inattention is linked to an emotion that is blocking their ability to focus or pay attention.

          Teachers and adults must also understand the importance of expressing how they feel to their students and children. They must not assume that the child knows they are upset or sad. An engaging environment must be created by showing through example that children can succeed and do well at a task even when they are upset.

          Brackett and Elias want schools to foster an open, honest and engaging learning environment when it comes to children and their feelings.The simple act of a teacher taking the time to warmly great every student, or hold a classroom meeting to go over the day's events has been shown to increase classroom productivity. Giving children the time to "reset" their emotional switchboards allows them to be in a better position to handle feelings that come up later on during the day.

          Even though there are difficulties getting emotional literacy programs adapted into schools, Elias states that it's a growing trend in which science is catching up with observed reality.

          "The science will eventually show that emotions matter," said Brackett.

For more information about emotional intelligence and teaching emotional literacy visit:  

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