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Teaching Emotional Intelligence – How Schools Can Educate Children for Life

image by Michelle Higgins, all rights reserved: teacher Anna Kearney

Step into Anna Kearney’s third grade classroom, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, and you will see amongst the usual colourful art projects, a row of plastic cups stapled to the wall. There are ten numbered cups in all and they are part of Self Science, a social and emotional education curriculum developed by 6 Seconds.

Kearney believes that the soul searching that took place following tragic clusters of high school student suicides, is the impetus that drives teachers in her school district to fully embrace social and emotional learning. She observes: “Kids are talking about the college they want to go to in third grade. There is a lot of pressure with Stanford just down the road. There is just a lot of pressure… ”

Self Science represented an opportunity to equip Kearney’s students with concrete tools to deal with the immense social and academic pressures that increase exponentially as students travel through the middle and high school years.

Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

image by Michelle Higgins, all rights reserved

In the 2010/2011 school year, Kearney trialed the Self Science curriculum, devoting 45 minutes of classroom time to the program each week. During these sessions students used the scientific method to gain a deeper understanding of their own emotions and patterns of behaviour, all the while being schooled in the eight competencies that are considered essential to developing emotional intelligence in children.  

Kearney’s third graders cycled through the curriculum three times, and with each new cycle, they increased the depth of their understanding and their ability to apply emotional intelligence competencies to real world situations. Ultimately, Self Science aims to give students the ability:

•    To Know Yourself:  become emotionally literate
•    To Choose Yourself:  recognise and change patterns of behaviour
    To Give Yourself :  pursue noble goals outside your own self-interest

Rather than lecture students or have them fill in the blanks on worksheets, Kearney adopts teaching strategies that engage students in open ended and meaningful ways:

•    to build emotional literacy, the class is told to show their emotional states using only body language. This helps students to become more proficient in naming their own emotions and become better at reading the emotional cues of those around them;
•    a box is always available for students to anonymously write down their worries and fears.  These notes are shared with the class at weekly meetings, building trust amongst class members, comfort as they discover that they are not alone in their fears, and empathy for classmates whose experiences are different from their own;
•    role plays allow students to explore different ways of responding to conflict, and assess for themselves which methods result in the most positive outcomes;
•    conducting model conversations gives students the opportunity to practice their newly developing skills and gain confidence in applying them to real life situations, a particularly useful strategy for more reticent students;
•    recalling triumphant moments and channeling these successes when facing future challenges helps students develop resilience and an optimistic outlook;
•    brainstorming sessions allow students to explore their noble goals with classmates, working together to come up with practical short and long term strategies to reach their goals.

Kearney has continued to use these strategies in the current school year, and has found that social and emotional learning is not limited to the weekly sessions:
      “If something happens we have a meeting right then and there about it . . . Kids are very vocal if their feelings are hurt. Nine out of ten times we are able to have a conversation about it. There are a lot of quick meetings, sometimes just a handful of kids, sometimes the whole class. Sometimes other kids feel like they can help mediate.”

At the start of the year Kearney reports that this takes up a lot of time as she needs to coach the students through these sessions. As the school year progresses, students became very proficient at resolving issues on their own and there is generally far less conflict in the classroom, leaving more time for learning.

Whole School Approach to Learning Emotional Intelligence Skills    

In Kearney’s experience, most student conflict occurs during recess and lunch, and this is one of the reasons she is thrilled that her elementary school has decided to embrace Self-Science across all grade levels – “so that all the kids are working from the same base”.

Principal Mary Bussmann is also passionate about the benefits of social and emotional education:

    “It is so important for children to develop a sense of themselves. How to interact socially, understand social cues, to have a bank of words that they can help advocate for themselves whether it be in positive social interactions or resolving conflict. . . It’s bringing up that consciousness in themselves that they do have the power and the voice to speak up … in any situation.”

6 Seconds takes a highly collaborative approach when working with whole school communities – they survey teachers, parents and students to better understand a school’s culture and particular needs. For Bussmann, working with 6 Seconds provided an opportunity to take the schools existing core values “to a very deep level in our community.”

Bussmann argues parents also need to be educated about emotional intelligence skills in children so she has worked with 6 Seconds to provide multiple opportunities for parents to receive training in the Self Science approach. And the parents have enthusiastically embraced the first round of seminars: “They are on fire. They are bringing it to our community in such a big way. Those ideas are really entrenched and I am going to continue that education of the parents so the parents understand what we are doing.”

Teaching Emotional Intelligence and Academic Success

Time spent on Self Science has not detracted from other academic learning, says Kearney, but instead has enhanced learning across the board. She rejects the narrow focus on academics that has afflicted many struggling school districts in the United States:
     “Those schools are feeling the academic pressure even more than we are. They are cutting things like PE. They would only do math and language arts. They are going to teach what gets tested because they are under government pressure to increase test scores. Doing that extra time in math is not going to increase their math scores. They need to develop some thinking skills.”

Kearney’s year-long study of the impact of Self Science on academic learning affirmed what she was seeing on a daily basis in the classroom,