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Teaching Feelings 101
Spurred by a best-selling book, many schools aim to raise "emotional intelligence." It may be working
By Romesh Ratnesar/TIME
NEW HAVEN (TIME, Sep. 29) -- Patrice Edwards teaches second grade at Beecher Elementary, a public school in New Haven, Conn., where most of her students wear maroon-plaid uniforms. That's the first indication that something unusual is going on. Here's the second: on a recent September morning, as the 25 children in Edwards' class sat cross-legged on the floor passing a big blue ball around, they whispered compliments to each other. "You're a nice speller." "You've got pretty handwriting." "You are a good artist." A soothing calm settled in the room. For the moment, traditional academics were nowhere to be found. Edwards says the kids are learning deeper truths. "We are teaching them values that are universal," she says. "Being kind to a person--that's something all people need to do."
This is school? Kindness is an ancient virtue, but the idea of formally teaching six- and seven-year-olds to give compliments in an inner-city public school is brand-new. In New Haven all students from kindergarten through high school take part in the district's Social Development Program, which weaves "emotional learning" exercises--like the ball-rolling game--into the fabric of an ordinary school day. School officials say problem-solving and stress-management skills are as essential as literature and long division to a '90s education. "We believe it needs to be comprehensive, just like science and math," says Merrie Harrison, a seventh-grade teacher. "Every child, every school, every year."
As many as 700 school districts across the country have instituted programs that aim to nourish students' souls as well as their minds. And while the best teachers have long taught kids to behave and play fair, they now have science on their side. In 1995 psychologist and New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which contends that children's ability to recognize their own emotions, empathize with peers and deal with crises--their "emotional quotient," or EQ--influences their life chances as much as native intelligence. The book, now a paperback best seller, has had a catalytic effect. Rutgers psychologist Maurice Elias, a pioneer in emotional education, says he fields endless calls, E-mails and faxes from interested educators. "There is credibility now given to taking time in the school day to carry out this kind of work," he says.
For many teachers, this new focus is welcome. The forces driving students to distraction have never been stronger. Says Goleman: "If you are a kid who wants to avoid depression or violence and not drop out, academic topics will have nothing to do with it." Marylu Simon, school superintendent in Highland Park, N.J., says many children arrive at school "simply angry from some situation that has happened at home. It affects their ability to come into the school, sit down at their desk and be ready to learn."
So Highland Park sixth-graders are taught to act as cool-headed "peer mediators" who swoop in to resolve tussles among their peers. At Hazel Valley Elementary School, outside Seattle, misbehaving students go to principal Barbara Walton's office not for a scolding but for a questionnaire that asks them to identify the classroom problems they caused and to generate solutions. "It's nice to have discipline that's problem solving and not just punishment," Walton says.
Some parents bristle at such squishy, New Agey techniques. At its worst, they say, emotional learning verges on therapy sessions for third-graders. "I don't want my children talking about my family's problems in the classroom," a Highland Park father said at a school meeting. But EQ gurus such as Professor Roger Weissberg of the University of Illinois in Chicago say students in the best programs have shown not just "more positive attitudes about ways to get along with people" but also improvements in critical- thinking skills. And in New Haven, teenagers say they're witnessing less violence, toting fewer guns and having sex later. Admittedly, better behavior does not ensure academic achievement. But American schools will take good news where they can find it.
--Reported by Emily Mitchell/New York, Andrea Sachs/New Haven and Janet I-Chin Tu/Seattle
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