Change of Hearts : In Many Schools, Teaching Emotional Skills Has Become as Important as the Three Rs


In another time, another place, 13-year-old Tom Dittmer might have slugged the kid who had been making fun of him behind his back. He still wanted to.

But after nine years at Nueva School here, he knew it would be better to talk about his anger and what might be behind it--a long-simmering resentment against the school’s “in-crowd.”

Sitting on sunlit wooden steps amid the school’s cozy grounds, he analyzed his recent decision, sounding startlingly more mature than his freckles and sneakers might suggest. “I’ve had difficulty like this before in different situations,” Tom said. “The first time you’re never quite sure you’re going to solve the problem without physical action.” But he said he’s seen results from choosing more peaceful alternatives. “I see it as a better way,” he said. “I think all things can be solved by talking.”

A private school for gifted children, Nueva has been teaching emotional and social skills to students with the same zeal as math, science and reading ever since the 1960s. In weekly classes called “self science,” first- through eighth-graders are taught how to identify what they and others are feeling, and how to stand up for those feelings while still respecting the rights of others.


In the long run, more than a high IQ is needed for personal and work success, said S. Chevy Martin, the school’s associate director. “We’re all emotional beings. That’s really where people live.”

Now, Nueva’s self-science program has become a model for a new and growing “emotional literacy movement,” said psychologist/journalist Dan Goleman, author of the recently published “Emotional Intelligence” (Bantam Books). Children in every socioeconomic group need this training, said Goleman, citing precipitous declines in the social and emotional skills of a sampling of both privileged and inner-city children over the past 20 years. One nationwide assessment of 2,000 children, 7 to 16, in the late ‘80s, compared to a similar cross-section a decade earlier, found the subjects had become more depressed, lonely, angry, self-centered, impulsive and less cooperative.

Faced with exploding rates of teen violence and suicide, more educators have become convinced they can no longer afford to ignore their students’ social and emotional lives. At the same time, they want something broader than drug or other problem-focused programs, and more meaningful than ditto sheets on self-esteem.

About 1,000 public and private schools, including hundreds in New York City and the entire school district in New Haven, Conn., are experimenting with some form of emotional literacy program, sometimes called conflict resolution or character education, said Mark Greenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. Interest is so high that many schools seeking quick solutions to campus violence have jumped on the bandwagon without looking to see which programs are effective, said Greenberg, who is also a founding member of the Life Skills Collaborative, a Yale University clearinghouse for social and emotional education.


Recent research has shown that the area of the brain that processes emotions basically forms between ages 3 and 10, Greenberg said. But it is not completely formed until adolescence, suggesting that emotional skills should be taught at an early age and that it is possible to continue to sculpt the circuitry that helps children react skillfully to unbidden emotions and impulses, Goleman said.

Nueva’s self-science classes teach the basic skills that Goleman contends constitute emotional intelligence: self-awareness, empathy, managing feelings and other communication skills, including assertiveness and negotiating.

As a goal, Goleman cites Aristotle’s admonition “to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way. . . .”

But even Aristotle admitted: “This is not easy.”


At Nueva, a tree-shrouded private school housed in a converted mansion once owned by the Crocker banking family, each self-science class opens with students taking their emotional temperatures and describing them to the group with a number from 1 to 10, 10 being the most positive.

On a recent Friday, a group of squirming first- and second-graders changed the rules a bit and ranked themselves from 1 to 500, as each in turn tried to one up the last. One was hurt because someone had called her a name, another was proud because he had been picked to lead a line, a third was sad because her parents had gone away on a trip.

Coordinator Janice Toben asked what they might do when someone hurts their feelings. “I’d say, ‘Don’t call me dumb,’ ” a girl said, adding sagely: “You shouldn’t call anyone dumb unless you have to.”


A 6-year-old boy said, “I’d say ‘Please don’t do that’ five times. If they don’t stop, I’d say, ‘Now you’ve made me so miserable, I’m going to get a grown-up.’ ”

Later, Toben helped them identify more feelings through a relay race in which they were told to demonstrate feelings like silly, tired, happy or helpful while running.

When they reach the middle grades, students are taught how the brain works to process emotions. They learn communication skills such as active listening and eye contact. They also keep journals of their feelings.

Several children wrote in their journals about the pressures of high expectations. “Sometimes life is too much to take. Too many people expect too much from me.”

“Sometimes I’m not in touch with myself, but the rating scale makes me think and identify my state of being.”

Some noted the feelings of others. “When I found out that [an acquaintance] had done drugs for too long, it just blew me away! He did stop, but not in time, his brain was fried. He is sad when everyone else is happy. . . .”

In the upper grades, the sessions look like guided peer counseling as students talk over the personal issues in their lives--divorce, moving, dating, and, for many the most painful, popularity and rejection. Teachers help them see whether thoughts or feelings are dictating their choices and steer them to positive but realistic assessments of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

After Tom Dittmer brought his complaint to a teacher, it became apparent that other boys also had complaints against the “in-crowd.” Teachers called a special boys-only self science class for the eighth-graders. The students agreed that a visitor could sit in.


Sixteen boys and three teachers sat in a circle on the floor of a glass-walled classroom. Tom sat with the smaller, quieter boys facing the larger, more assertive boys across the circle.

Guidelines were posted on the blackboard: “What do I think? How do I feel? How will I act?”

As the talk began, they decided right off to replace the “offensive” terms popular and unpopular with “A group” and “B group.” (One boy joked that A stood for “Alpha males.”)

Tom said he’d been noticing since third grade that the B group had to defer to the A group in seating preferences. Others said teachers allowed the A boys to yell out answers but B boys had to raise their hands.

“I think it’s interesting how the popular girls hang around the popular guys and they get coupled up,” said a B boy.

An A boy retorted, “Are you saying [my] whole relationship [with a certain girl] is based on the fact that I think she’s popular?” The B boy backed off.

The teachers interceded now and then, reminding them that the goal was to get past complaints, to use “I statements” rather than blaming others and encouraging the quiet ones to contribute.

The A group paid polite attention. Eye-rolling was kept to a minimum. But, nothing resolved, the group decided to meet again in the afternoon.

“Thank you guys for listening,” Tom said as the group broke up with self-congratulatory applause. “I know it’s an upsetting issue.”

At lunch, the two groups ate and talked on separate sides of the courtyard.

Tom said later that he didn’t expected the self-science class to resolve the problem. “Self science only works when both sides are willing to work out the problems,” he said. “It’s like in war, you can’t sign a peace treaty with only one person’s signature on it.”


At first blush, emotional training seems almost unassailable.

“Who’s against emotionally stable children?” asked Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. But Horwitz cautioned that programs that explore individual psyches can invade family or religious terrain, are too hard to measure and take up valuable teacher time that is better spent on core academic subjects.

“What we believe is the best way for kids to get self-esteem is to master school work. Period. Otherwise, it creates a false sense of self-esteem,” he said.

From his experience with group rap sessions during a high school leadership camp, Horwitz said, youngsters who are compelled to participate can feel pressured to make up stories about their innermost feelings to compete with their friends.

Other critics worry that such training may promote the idea that some emotions are better than others, that a generation of children is being raised to talk like self-help books or that it might not work in settings less privileged than Nueva.

While the evidence so far is persuasive that emotional education can delay gratification in some children, no one is yet sure whether it will produce happier, healthier kids in the long run, said researcher Peter Salovey, a professor of psychology at Yale who coined the term “emotional intelligence” six years ago along with psychologist John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire.

He worries that emotional training programs will be oversold and oversimplified. Social problems rooted in poverty, for example, will not be solved by making individuals more aware of their emotions, he said. “We might have incredibly emotionally skilled sociopaths or murderers,” he said.

Salovey’s research also showed that there are various ways to be emotionally intelligent. While people in a happy mood are better at creative problem-solving, people in a sad mood are better at deductive reasoning on problems such as those in the LSAT test.

Greenberg said his own public school program, PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), has found a 30% to 50% improvement in teachers’ ratings of the social competence of 175 children compared with an equivalent group of children who did not have the training. In the PATHS program, children are taught to “stop and think” when they are upset, to use flash cards with facial expressions to identify 50 emotional states, and evaluate options and consequences.

Goleman said children and teachers in New Haven have also reported remarkable improvement in behavior. Several inner-city programs have also shown an exciting fringe benefit, he said: improved academic achievement scores.

But a problem with some evaluations is that the evaluators often know which kids have undergone intervention, said Adrian Raine, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. In those cases, he said, “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Moreover, he said the programs are less effective with high-risk kids. His research shows that violent behavior can be traced to impaired mental functioning because of birth complications, maternal rejection and child abuse. “If you don’t have the hardware in your head to take on this cognitive emotional training, it’s not going to work,” he said. More programs are needed that provide parenting skills to pregnant women and high school students, he added.

But meanwhile, Yale’s Salovey said, it can’t hurt to help children learn about their emotions so that they don’t mistake feelings for symptoms (and can thus avoid health problems like eating disorders) or so they can be more creative in solving social dilemmas.

Clearly, it can be an enormous relief to just be able to talk over problems in an atmosphere of trust. “In my elementary school, we couldn’t even have had the discussion without people being incredibly upset, embarrassed or throwing things,” Salovey said. Or, as Tom puts it: “Small annoyances or disappointments get escalated if you don’t have the opportunity to get them off your chest.”


Raising Your Emotional IQ While there is no test for emotional intelligence, experts say the following questions can serve as a guide to areas for improvement:

* Are you aware of feelings such as anger, pain or jealousy as they occur?

* Can you trust your feelings to guide you in life decisions such as who to marry, job changes or what house to buy?

* When angry, can you express yourself effectively without fuming in silence or blowing your top?

* When you can’t get what you want when you want it, are you upset?

* Do you find it difficult to prepare for a test or a speech when you are anxious?

* When you get into an argument, do you have to win your point every time?

* Are you easily crushed by setbacks?

* Can you sense what other people are feeling without them telling you?

* Can you take the other person’s perspective when you disagree?

* Can you wait for your turn to speak without interrupting?

* Do other people tend to seek you out for advice? Answer your e-mail promptly?

* Can you apologize sincerely when wrong?