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May 1997 | Volume 54 | Number 8
Social and Emotional Learning
Carolyn R. Pool
Emotional well-being is a predictor of success in academic achievement, employment, marriage, and physical health. Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence, spoke at ASCD's Annual Conference about the emotional intelligence of our students.
Have you had an amygdala attack lately? An amygdala attack in your brain sets your heart to racing, poised for fight or flight. As the "seat of all passion," according to Dan Goleman, our two amygdalas rule our emotions, our feelings, our relationships, our learning. In fact, emotional well-being is the strongest predictor of achievement in school and on the job, according to recent research. And according to other research, today's children are down on all indicators of emotional health.
Goleman discussed ways to bring out the "good citizen" that is already there in our children—the person who cares, who "sees human need and acts spontaneously." Such a person may not know about the amygdala, but the good citizen—the person with a high emotional intelligence—knows what to do when it attacks.
Goleman discussed many research studies showing that a person's IQ predicts only a small part of career performance—ranging from 4 to 20 percent. But recent studies have shown that emotional intelligence predicts about 80 percent of a person's success in life.
Goleman said that his understanding of emotional intelligence expands on Howard Gardner's "personal intelligences"—the intrapersonal (knowing yourself) and interpersonal (knowing how to get along with others). Goleman emphasized that educators need to consider "educating differently" for this intelligence, because different areas of the brain are involved.
What controls our emotions is the limbic brain, right in the middle of the three main layers of the human brain: the cortex, limbic brain, and brain stem. And in the middle of the limbic area, behind our eyes, are two amygdalas. Recent neurological research has shown that these almond-shaped organs receive and send all emotional messages. Of course, nothing in the brain occurs in isolation; the amygdala is constantly communicating with the cortex, where we do analytical and verbal tasks and where our working memory resides. Goleman said that we neglect the emotional brain at our peril—and at the peril of our students. Here is how your amygdalas work:
The emotional brain scans everything happening to us from moment to moment, to see if something that happened in the past that made us sad or angry is like what is happening now. If so, the amygdala calls an alarm—to declare an emergency and mobilize in a split second to act. And it can do so, in brain time, more rapidly than the thinking brain takes to figure out what is going on, which is why people can get into a rage and do something very inappropriate that they wished they hadn't. It's an emotional hijacking.
Our analytical thinking is always influenced by our emotions. If we have a mature, healthy connection, we can control our responses to the amygdala's messages. The cortex can tell us to forget the "fight" response. Everybody gets angry, but not everyone acts violently. Children who are chronically sad or angry or anxious experience constant interference by the amygdala; it's hard for them to concentrate, to learn.
Goleman said that we need to incorporate five dimensions of emotional intelligence into everything we do in school, for both adults and children.
Self-awareness. The first dimension, self-awareness, is the basis for self-confidence. We need to know our strengths and limits and how to be decisive. Kids need to learn from a young age what the words for feelings are, why they feel the way they do, and what action options they have. For example, a recent study found that 6th grade girls who confused feelings of anger, anxiety, loneliness, and hunger were at high risk of developing an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia in their teens. Such children would benefit from higher self-awareness and healthier decision making.
Handling emotions generally. The second dimension, knowing how to handle upsetting feelings, or impulses, is the root of emotional intelligence. Consider the famous Marshmallow Test:
Four-year-old kids from the Stanford University preschool are the subjects. The experimenter puts a marshmallow in front of each kid and says: "You could have this marshmallow now, if you want, but if you wait until I run an errand, and don't eat it until I get back, you can have two then." The videotaped results are hilarious. Some kids go up to the marshmallow, smell it, then leap back like it's dangerous. Some go off in a corner and sing and dance to distract themselves. Some kids just grab it. About a third of the kids grab it and eat it, about a third wait just a while, and the rest wait an endless 10 minutes until the experimenter comes back, and they get two.
These kids were followed up 14 years later, when they graduated from high school. The "grabbers" were still impulsive; they were quick to anger and not very popular. The "waiters" were popular and well-balanced emotionally. But the most astonishing finding was that the "waiters" had higher scores on their SATs—210 points higher than the "grabbers," out of a possible score of 1,600.
According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), this 210-point advantage matches that of economically advantaged children versus poor children and is larger than that of children from families with graduate degrees versus children whose parents didn't finish high school.
Here are some social consequences of being impulsive: for boys—three to six times more likely to be violent by the end of adolescence; for girls—three times more likely to get pregnant in adolescence; for kids who are chronically sad or anxious in elementary school—most likely to end up as a substance abuser in adolescence during periods of experimentation.
Here are some consequences of being "waiters": A U.S. Department of Personnel study of outstanding performers found that they were flexible, adaptable, and conscientious; they stayed positive under pressure and had integrity.
Motivation. Moving toward our goals is a third element of emotional intelligence. An important element of motivation is hope—having a goal, knowing the small manageable steps it takes to get to that goal, and having the "zeal or persistence" to follow through. Can we measure—and thus teach—hope? A psychologist, C.R. Snyder, devised such a measurement and tested freshmen as they entered college. He found that those who scored higher on hope had higher grades at the end of the year and that hope was a better predictor of good grades than were SAT scores. Goleman said, "The folks at ETS were startled to hear about this."
We can actually teach hope, and optimism, and motivation to learn. Many families do this on their own—teaching children by small steps how to set goals, how to persevere, how to work toward high achievement, how to find fulfillment in life.
Empathy. Empathy, the fourth element, means reading other people's feelings by tone of voice or facial expression, not necessarily words. Knowing how someone else feels is a fundamental human ability—seen even in infants and small children. Goleman said that 2-year-olds from loving families will often try to comfort a friend who is crying. But young children who have been seriously abused or neglected in the first years of life tend to yell at or hit crying children. He stated, "Emotional intelligence is learned, and it's learned from the earliest years straight on through."
Goleman related a disturbing story of a person who lacked empathy and compassion. A man known as the Santa Cruz Strangler was in prison for murdering seven people. When asked by an interviewer whether he felt any pity for his victims, the strangler said in a calm tone, "Oh, no. If I had felt any of their suffering, I couldn't have done it." The man had an IQ of 160.
An obvious lesson to be drawn from this story is that IQ has absolutely nothing to do with empathy. Goleman stated: "Empathy is the brake on human cruelty. It is what keeps civility alive in society."
Another example of people who seem to lack empathy is playground bullies. How do educators deal with bullies? Some researchers have found that bullies benefit from lessons in reading faces—what different emotions look like.
One psychologist decided to form a Buddies Club to help socialize some bullies he was working with (note that he did not call it the "Bullies Club"). In one activity, he paired all the children and had them make faces at each other, then identify what feelings the faces communicated. The bullies learned the differences between sad, angry, neutral, and hostile expressions. The psychologist also taught the children other social skills, such as how to ask other kids about themselves and how to take turns. Goleman concluded: "Guess what? They weren't bullies anymore after that."
Social skills. This is the fifth element of emotional intelligence. As Goleman noted, bullies benefit from instruction in social skills. And such skills are contagious.
Goleman's story of the "urban saint" shows such positive contagion. He described an unusually friendly bus driver who greeted passengers, pointed out interesting features on the route, and wished passengers well as they alighted—each with more energy in his or her step. Goleman said he would like to see more people like that bus driver in our classrooms.
Emotional intelligence matters for school achievement, job success, marital happiness, and physical health. Goleman discussed the recent research finding that people who are chronically anxious, sad, or depressed have double the risk of getting a major disease—a higher risk than smoking.
The same risk factors apply to marriage, which is particularly prone to amygdala attacks. Many couples fall into the habit of negative emotional expressions that, if continued, leads to divorce. In this pattern, the partners make angry accusations and personal attacks in the heat of the moment—using name-calling, like "You're a slob!" Things escalate when words like "jerk" are added, and then the rolling eyes, sneers, and sarcasm that are sure signs of contempt and disgust—"very hurtful messages from someone you love."
These messages can trigger a greatly increased heart rate: an amygdala attack, an "emotional hijacking, a flooding." People in this state hate it; they strike out or they leave. Many learn to tune out completely to other people—whether a spouse, a teacher, a parent, an employer, or a friend. Goleman said that couples, as well as educators and students, need to learn how to give calm, informational feedback, and thus avoid provoking amygdala attacks.
Emotional health is also important on the job. Employers have rated "star performers" as those who are persuasive, likable, and assertive; these people can motivate and inspire others, lead teams, and work cooperatively.
We can raise the emotional intelligence of our students. We can provide supports—even one caring adult—for those children whose parents are not around. We can plan activities to get children away from TVs and video monitors. Because the amygdala doesn't mature until a child is 15 or 16, we have many chances to teach children how to handle their feelings. We can teach bullies peaceful options; we can help shy kids develop their social skills.
Goleman emphasized that social-emotional development programs should be integrated into the curriculum and the life of the school, involve parents, and include community mentors. They do best when they go for the long term and when teachers are well trained—and when we ourselves become more healthy emotionally.
Carolyn R. Pool is Senior Editor of Educational Leadership. Daniel Goleman, formerly the Senior Editor of Psychology Today, is a psychologist who has reported on the behavioral and brain sciences for The New York Times since 1984. He is the author of Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).
Copyright © 1997 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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