Teaching Emotional Intelligence

At the beginning of every day, Holly Risk’s third- and fourth-graders each drop a Popsicle stick into a cup numbered from 1 to 10. A “10” means a student is feeling enthusiastic and ready for a great day. A “1” might mean a child is dragging from not getting enough sleep the night before or is feeling cranky for some reason.
It’s the first “EQ check-in” of the day in Risk’s class at Synapse School, a Menlo Park private K-8 school built around the concepts of emotional intelligence or “EQ” – a person’s ability to identify, understand and manage her or his emotions.
“It’s important for the kids and teachers to recognize how kids feel when they’re entering the room. It sets them up for success. If someone is having a rough day, you might be more patient with them,” says Risk. Each morning a student, the designated “EQ checker,” checks in with each classmate to see how they’re doing and whether they need any help. And the class circles back throughout the day with various check-ins as students’ feelings – and numbers ­­– change.
Increasingly, educators are embracing the notion that EQ may be just as important – or more important – than IQ for student success – in the classroom and in life. It may seem obvious that the ability handle one’s emotions, empathize, build relationships, navigate conflict and make good decisions are all keys to success.
But in recent years, researchers and educators have concluded that these are not innate traits but skills than can, and should, be taught. The result is a proliferation of social emotional learning (SEL) programs in the Bay Area and beyond.
“In the last four years, it feels like it has just skyrocketed into the language of schools,” says Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., education director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which runs a summer SEL institute for teachers. “Some of these programs have been around for 20 years, but in the last couple of years schools have really started to pay attention to it.”
Definitions vary, but social emotional learning generally consists of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. (See sidebar.) Schools teach these skills through a specific curriculum, by integrating the concepts into other subjects and the broader school culture, or both.
“Our emotions work with our cognitive function in a seamless and integrated way,” says Zakrzewski. “It’s critical to the learning process, but we have never paid attention to it until now.”
The SEL Payoff
Research shows social emotional learning programs have improved children’s academic performance by an average of 11 percentile points; improved their attitudes, behavior and motivation to learn; decreased negative behaviors, disruptions and disciplinary referrals; and reduced emotional distress, with fewer students reporting depression, anxiety, stress and social withdrawal, according to the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading advocate for SEL in schools.
Menlo Park’s Synapse School was founded in 2008 by the same people who created Six Seconds, a nonprofit which promotes practicing emotional intelligence in business, education and parenting. The school combines academic instruction with Six Seconds’ “Self-Science” SEL curriculum, with the goal of educating the “change-makers” of tomorrow.
“We blend SEL throughout everything we do, all our relationships, how we communicate. It’s infused throughout the day,” says Jim Eagen, head of the 225-student school.
“Research shows if you can improve a child’s ability to understand their emotional landscape, you’re going to have more success academically in the classroom. You need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and understand others,” he adds. “Our mission is about creating change-makers. They’ll have a lot of problems if they can’t communicate effectively or problem solve.”
But social emotional learning isn’t limited to private schools such as Synapse and El Cerrito’s Prospect Sierra, which uses an SEL program created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
The Oakland Unified School District is one of eight large urban districts nationwide participating in CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative, which was created in 2011 to improve student learning and schools through social emotional learning.
The district has adopted SEL standards for pre-K through adults – including teachers and district staff – and included the standards on elementary grade report cards.
The focus on social emotional learning “has shifted the culture,” says Andrea Bustamante, the district’s executive director of community school student services. “We have seen positive changes in relationships and understanding the importance of relationships…. They’re starting to engage in different ways. Both at the adult level and the students’ level, there’s more support for one another.”
“Being able to have relationships is a key component of not just going to college but being successful in careers as well,” she adds. SEL skills “explicitly need to be taught. They’re not inherent or intrinsic. You don’t just know how to be self-aware or develop relationships.”
Zakrzewski says intentional social emotional learning creates a shift in how teachers view and deal with students, and how students treat each other.
When a child acts out, for instance, instead of teachers and peers assuming something is wrong with the child – or that the child should be disciplined – an understanding of SEL encourages finding out what’s going on with the child that could have spurred the behavior.
Creating Safe Spaces
That more empathetic approach creates better relationships between teachers and students and safer spaces for learning and academic risk-taking, knowing it’s OK to make mistakes, advocates say.
Risk taught in a traditional public school in Tennessee before moving to Synapse four years ago.
“When I first started out teaching, you do your best, but sometimes you step in and solve (problems for students) because it’s faster,” she says. “What I’ve most learned at Synapse is to slow down and embrace those moments. If they’re working on a group project and get caught in a conflict or disagreement, we will pause. It’s worth spending an extra five minutes to say, ‘What would be a good choice here?’”
“I think they get to the point where there is less conflict because they are noticing other students’ reactions or facial expressions before someone gets upset. … Also, the conflicts are calmer because they’re working through things together,” she says.
In addition to students learning the “self-science” SEL curriculum, Risk integrates the concepts throughout the day, whether it’s talking about how a character in a story or a figure in history felt and how that influenced their actions.
“The most important thing,” Risk says, “is that when a child doesn’t feel safe, it’s pretty impossible to learn. Taking the time to do the emotional part helps them learn even more.”
 What is Social Emotional Learning?
There are five “competency clusters” identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in promoting social emotional learning in schools.
 Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions, thoughts and their influence on behavior. Includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors effectively in different situations. Includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
 Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school and community resources and supports.
Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. Includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
Responsible decision-making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions and the well-being of self and others.
Source: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the nation’s leading organization working to integrate social emotional learning in preschool through high school. www.casel.org.
Great Schools. The Oakland-based nonprofit offers parent resources on “emotional smarts,” including articles and games, in conjunction with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. www.greatschools.org/gk/emotional-smarts/.http://www.greatschools.org/gk/emotional-smarts/.
Parent Toolkit, produced by NBC News Education Nation, offers tips, conversation starters and resources on social and emotional development for children in different age groups. www.parenttoolkit.com.
Raising Humans. This podcast from Six Seconds, the nonprofit organization behind Synapse school, offers 15-minute installments offering ways parents can use emotional intelligence, and help their children do so, in everyday family challenges. Topics include mealtime meltdowns, power struggles and quality time in a busy world. www.6seconds.org/parenting/raisinghumans/.
Six Seconds: The nonprofit offers lots of free resources for understanding and practicing emotional intelligence in different areas of life, from business to education. www.sixseconds.org.
Fun With EQ
One product shot (Worry Eaters) sent to Staci and another linked below. Can get others if desired.
A number of products are being marketed to introduce social emotional learning to young children in a fun way.
EQtainment offers an interactive board game, plush buddy, CD storybook and an emotional intelligence curriculum for parents and children through its new QWunder app. eqtainment.com.
Peppy Pals offers apps and e-books for children ages 2-8 in which they learn about dealing with emotions and friendship through five animated animal characters. www.peppypals.com.
Image Downloads here: http://news.cision.com/peppy-pals
The Moodsters is a line toys and books for preschoolers with characters that represent the emotions anger, happiness, sadness, love and fear (similar to Pixar’s Inside Out.) Sets include a Moodster Meter, Feelings Flashlight and Moodster Mirror with accompanying book, as well as talking plush characters with accompanying books about the emotion they represent. Downloadable EQ resources for parents are available. themoodsters.com.
Worry Eaters is an award-winning line of plush toys with zippered pockets for mouths that allow worried or anxious children to write down or draw their fears or concerns and then “feed” them to the cute monster. An accompanying guide helps parents understand how to deal with children’s common worries at different ages. www.haywiregroup.com/worry-eaters/.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


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