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Interview – Professor Jonathan Cohen – Emotional Intelligence and Academic Success – Part 1

Jonathan Cohen is a co-founder and President of the National School Climate Center (formerly the Center for Social and Emotional Education), in New York City.  I met Jonathan in 2000 when I went to San Francisco for the first international conference on emotional intelligence.  It was a very exciting time for me, and meeting Jonathan was certainly one of the highlights. I’ve kept in touch with him ever since, and visited him at his office in New York.  Jonathan is an adjunct professor in psychology and education at the Teachers’ College at Columbia University, and an adjunct professor in education at the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.  He has written several papers and books on social and emotional learning, one of them called Educating Minds and Hearts: Social and Emotional Learning and the Passage into Adolescence.  

I’ve asked Jonathan to talk about a subject that I’m absolutely passionate about, and that is the connection between kids’ social and emotional skills, sometimes called their emotional intelligence, and their success at school.  And success not just in terms of what marks they get, but how they settle in at school and how well they cope with the school environment.  Jonathan can you please give an introduction to everybody to social and emotional learning…and is it the same as emotional intelligence?

Jonathan:  Well the term ‘social and emotional learning’ is used in somewhat different ways by different people.  Most people think about social and emotional learning like character education, as the process of parents and teachers intentionally promoting the skills and knowledge and dispositions that support kids’ capacity to learn and develop healthy relationships and to be able to work and be a member of an engaged, democratic society.  

And some people, like some of my colleagues in the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, think about five essential sets of competencies:
–    developing kids’ capacity to be aware of themselves,
–    to manage their own experience,
–    to be aware socially and
–    to use this awareness, both of ourselves and others, to manage and develop interpersonal relationships and
–    finally to make responsible decisions.  

So on one level, social and emotional learning like character education is all about what kind of social and emotional and civic lessons we are wanting to teach.  So that’s one answer to the question.  This instructional dimension, or what are we intentionally teaching kids is really one of two essential aspects of social and emotional learning.  And the other is, how are we as grown ups, as parents, as parents and educators together, working to create homes and schools that are safe and caring and participatory and responsive to children’s needs?  So in my mind, when I think about social and emotional learning, or character education, I’m always thinking about these two overlapping dimensions.  

So the environment is very important as well?

Yes.  … we need to think about what kind of social and emotional and civic teachers we are.  But in an overlapping way, also what kind of environment are we creating, just as you’re saying Yvette, at home and at school?

So social and emotional learning has to take place in the right context for it to really occur and be successful?

Right, because naturally if a child is learning how to be more reflective or empathic, how to be a more flexible and creative problem solver, but at the same time they’re an utterly nervous wreck, that’s going to complicate any and all learning, social and emotional, linguistic or mathematical or whatever.  So as parents and educators, we do always need to be thinking about what kind of climate we are creating for learning and healthy development, as well as what we are actually teaching.

Could you talk more about social awareness, what that really means?

Social awareness really refers to our ability to take various perspectives, to empathise with other people, to be able to recognise and appreciate individual group similarities and differences.  And to recognise what kind of resources we have in our family, in our school, in our community.

Some parents feel that their children are either more or less socially aware than other children, and that may come to our attention because of things that happen in the playground, or things that happen in the home.  What are the core competencies that we should be looking at in that subset, that social awareness subset?  What is it that our children really need to be good at in order to be considered to be doing well in that dimension?

Well, on the one hand I think in so many ways learning how to be reflective, learning how to take a step back and think about “ How am I feeling right now?  How does that fit with what’s going on?”  And also being empathic to the best of our ability, being able to figure out how the other person is feeling and thinking.  These are really the basic building blocks of social and emotional literacy.  

So empathy and reflectiveness?

Empathy and reflective capacities.  And growing out of our capacity to really step back and think about “how am I feeling and thinking?  What are you feeling and thinking?” Children gradually develop the capacity to take different perspectives, to put myself, so to speak, in your shoes, in a different group’s shoes.  And that’s a fundamentally important social and emotional and civic capacity.

Could you expand more on what responsible decision making really means?

And that’s a critically important capacity because by responsible decision making, we’re implicitly saying that we want and need children to develop ethical standards, a kind of a moral compass.  And in an overlapping way – a capacity to be able to assess how safe you are or are not now.  For example, when children are young, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, it’s relatively easy to have a conversation about how kids are feeling, and to support kids paying attention to how their body and their emotions feel.  And we can take steps when children are young to support kids, recognising when they’re confused or they’re uncomfortable, which are really important emotional states to be attuned to.  

When we help little ones to recognise those kind of feelings of, for example, not feeling entirely safe, and we help little ones to recognise that’s an important feeling, it’s then not a big step when kids move into adolescence. [That’s when they] are beginning to think about or actually beginning to experiment sexually or in other potentially harmful ways.  If this has been part of a family tradition, where we’re as mums and dads saying “listen to how you’re feeling, and if you feel a little bit uncomfortable, that’s an important feeling, … and to say to yourself, well I need to take steps now to become more comfortable.” … If that’s not been part of family discussion and our 15 or 16 or 17 year old is beginning to think about experimenting with alcohol or other drugs or sexual experimentation, and if we out of the blue then say “listen to how you’re feeling”, they’re going to think we’re nuts.  And they are not going to be very receptive.

What if we skipped that part of our parenting and our children get to adolescence and we are finding it difficult to get kids to have a conversation with us about what they’re feeling.  Is there still hope?