Reading, Writing, 'Rithmetic...and Respect?

Some psychologists say teaching emotional literacy in school is key to better behavior — and better grades. Marc Brackett and Maurice Elias, two experts in social emotional learning, talk about how emotional literacy is woven into a standard curriculum, and how it can tackle problems like bullying and absenteeism.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

As teachers and kids get ready to go back to school, a topic more schools are tackling is something called emotional intelligence. Now you may have never heard about emotional intelligence. It's kids learning how to understand what other people are feeling and how what they do affects other people. How do you teach that? Does it just make students more conscientious? Can it boost their grades, also?

Two people who believe it does and it can are with me. Marc Brackett is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, New Haven. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Brackett.

MARC BRACKETT: Thank you very much, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Maurice Elias is professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He's also director of the Social and Emotional Learning Lab there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Elias.

MAURICE ELIAS: Thanks; good to be with you.

FLATOW: Let's talk about this definition, Dr. Elias first. Just what is emotional intelligence? I think many of our listeners have never heard of it.

ELIAS: Well, we've all heard of regular intelligence, and I think the emotional intelligence aspect is our way of being smart in the world. It's the set of skills that we need to get along in our interpersonal relationships. And it parallels a set of skills that we already know about and are familiar with, with regard to academic tasks and that kind of learning thing.

But I think we just don't pay attention as much to the idea that there's a set of skills for getting along with others that really matters a lot.

FLATOW: And Dr. Brackett, this is something we can teach people?

BRACKETT: It is. We believe that everyone deserves an education in emotional intelligence because for the most part there has been no direct instruction on these skills. For example, how many children have a sophisticated emotion vocabulary or know research-based strategies to regulate their emotions? How many adults really have this?

FLATOW: Dr. Elias, how come we never heard about this when we were in school years ago?

ELIAS: You know, I'm not sure that we valued its importance. We live in a much more complicated world now than when we were all in school, and schools are places where many kids are learning new things, and with learning new things comes a tremendous mix of emotion. It's wonder, it's enthusiasm, it's also despair and frustration. And the science of emotion is teaching us the fact that kids' ability to learn is tremendously affected by the emotional state while they're learning.

And I don't know that we really appreciated that until a lot of research over the last 20 years that's begun to point in that direction.

FLATOW: Dr. Brackett, are we then mistaking some problems in school, maybe kids who are not paying attention, and we think that they just are bored with the subject when there's some emotional problem that's there? Is that what this is about?

BRACKETT: In part, it definitely is about this. So using myself as an example, when I was in middle school, I was unfortunately a kid who was bullied, and when I look back at my grades, I'm not so proud of them as an adult today. But, you know, as Maurice was saying, I was worried about getting home safely. I was worried about, will I have a friend who will help protect me today?

So when our brains are preoccupied with managing our social lives, it's pretty hard to be present in a classroom and learn.

FLATOW: So you could be sitting there in the back of the room while somebody's going through the ABCs, and the teacher calls you, and you're so distracted by the bullying that happened, the teacher just thinks you're just not interested in the subject when you're really just upset about something.

BRACKETT: Exactly, definitely.

FLATOW: And is part of this process then teaching the kids to tell you that that's why they're not learning or that's what's on their mind?

BRACKETT: Well, it's complex, and we want to address both the child, the other students but as well as the educator and the school climate itself. So from our perspective, what we want to do is develop the skills in all individuals, from preschoolers to highschoolers to their parents to all staff in the school but also create the structures within a school for this to happen permanently.

FLATOW: Maurice, do you agree?

ELIAS: I agree. You know, when kids walk into a school, they put a lot of things in their lockers, but the one thing they don't put in are their feelings. They carry those feelings around with them every day, every classroom, in the hallway, in the lunchroom. And if we don't help them understand those feelings and know how to calm themselves down when they're upset, and in fact, frankly even calm themselves down when they're too elated, they're going to have a hard time paying attention to what's going on in the classroom.

And not to mention the fact that with the new education standards that many states are adopting, schools are going to change in the way in which classrooms have to have in-depth conversation, kids listening to each other, working with each other in groups. And all of that requires emotional skill.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to talk more about emotional intelligence with Marc Brackett and Maurice Elias.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about teaching emotional literacy in school with my guests: Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he's also director of the Social and Emotional Learning Lab there.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. So I guess part of the training that you do must involve the teachers to, I guess - you know, teachers bring baggage to the classroom also, don't they? Could they have some emotional baggage that they're carrying with them that is preventing them from communicating in the classroom?

BRACKETT: Go ahead.

ELIAS: Well, you know, we all bring that, and, you know, when you're a professional, you have to learn how to put that aside. But the one for us that is important in our work is for teachers to become sensitive to the emotional cues that they have themselves but really that their kids are emitting.

Sometimes when teachers are pressed to deliver so much curriculum content, they cannot pay attention to signs in their kids that the kids are confused, that the kids are just not getting the message, and when they don't pay attention to that, it turns out that they keep going and they don't have the kids with them, and that creates a very negative learning situation for everybody involved.

Of course then teachers themselves get frustrated. Why aren't they with me? Well, guess what? They left the highway a little while ago.

FLATOW: Yeah, you know, but now aren't there No Child Left Behind teaching standards and things like that that are required of them to do that?

BRACKETT: So yes, there are requirements, but the requirements don't necessarily include the techniques that teachers use to keep students engaged. So in addition to being aware of their students' emotions, for teachers to become aware of their own emotions and how to create an engaging learning environment is critical to our work on emotional intelligence.

FLATOW: Now let's say - let's think of a real-life example. Let's say someone is distracted, a student is sitting in the back of the room, is not participating, gets asked a question, doesn't really follow. How do you judge whether that is an academic problem or if it's an emotional intelligence problem?

ELIAS: Well, I think the default, at least when I work, is to assume that the kid basically has the academic equipment because we see most often that it tends to be an issue of emotion. I would sit down with a child like that, and again using, for example, depending on the age of the child, let's say it's a young child, I might show the child some picture books and have the child tell me if the faces that they're seeing and the body postures that they're seeing, what words they associate with that.

As Marc alluded to earlier, many of our children have a very deficient feelings vocabulary, which basically means when they look out at the world, they only see a few feelings. And we live in a world where kids need to absorb many feelings.

And so if they can't label those feelings clearly, then they're not going to be able to act on them appropriately or tell us when there's a difference between bored and being frustrated.

FLATOW: Marc, you've developed something called the RULER approach. Does that incorporate that idea into it?

BRACKETT: It does, so RULER is an acronym that stands for what we believe are these critical emotional skills. And they stand for recognizing emotion in oneself and others, understanding where emotions come from or the causes of emotions, labeling emotions, expressing emotions and regulating emotions.

And these are all interrelated skills. So as Maurice was mentioning, you know, when you can name your emotion, it's much easier to tame your emotion because you can create a mental model of what your experience is and then figure out what your needs are to help you regulate it.

FLATOW: Do you have to teach that to the student, to verbally express that and not to be afraid to say, you know, I had a bad day, I had to help Mom get the other kids out to school today, and I'm just not focused?

BRACKETT: We believe that all emotions are valid. We don't value any emotion over another. Of course we want schools to be positive, but students are going to come to school feeling disappointed and lonely, they're going to come feeling sad and angry, devastated, and what we want them to do is feel safe to disclose that information and make schools environments where that is the norm versus not.

FLATOW: And in what way do they disclose it? Do they disclose it in open class? Do they disclose it afterwards, or are they too embarrassed to talk about it? How do you get that out of them?

BRACKETT: Well, you asked a little while ago about the adults, and from our perspective it's about adults sharing. So sometimes we go into schools and teachers say things like, well, I would never tell my students I'm sad, or I never tell them I'm disappointed or angry or upset. And then I ask them, well, do you think they know when you're sad or angry or upset? Oh, definitely.

So when teachers themselves become comfortable explaining to students how they're feeling, not necessarily making their students have to help them regulate, you know, for their own well-being but being open and honest and sharing that they have the skills to be sad but also be a great teacher, we're going to see students becoming more open about it, as well.

FLATOW: And actually it works in classroom situations, the kids are not afraid to admit these things, they're not embarrassed?

ELIAS: They're having the feelings, and everybody knows it. And so part of what Marc is saying is the importance of creating a norm whereby we can talk about what we're feeling at the moment, in the classroom, as relates to the work that we're doing.

This is really not about having kids talk in any depth about things that are happening outside of the classroom and at home, not that that's inappropriate in all situations. But the main focus is just dealing with the feelings that are happening right now in the classroom that if we don't address them, they're going to interfere with the academic work that we want to accomplish.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Carol(ph) in Wood Acre, California. Hi, Carol.

CAROL: Hi, I just want to say thank you so much for this work. It's very important. I'm clinical director of an emotional literacy program in a very small middle school with probably about 100 kids where we actually get the opportunity to pull the kids out of the classroom for one hour a week and teach them emotional literacy skills. And this is a collaboration of the community center and the school and the parents.

And what we found is when we do exactly what you're speaking to, as being able to teach them to identify and express their feelings constructively, we teach nonviolent communication, tolerance, we deal with bullying and cyber-bullying, they are able to negotiate not only through conflicts around their academics but through issues regarding drugs and alcohol and eating disorders, they can negotiate through their life in a much stronger, healthier way, which obviously of course supports their academic and career growth.

So really my question is, you know, the teachers, our teachers are very adept in terms of emotional literacy, but there's no - I mean, they have no room in their academic schedule to do the level of work that we're able to do. How can we fund programs across the country that support this type of learning? Because there is so much emphasis on, you know, with the No Child Left Behind, on academics.

FLATOW: OK, good question, let me get some answer. Marc, Maurice, any answer?

BRACKETT: Well - go ahead, Maurice.

ELIAS: Sure. Yeah, I think the - I think we have to understand that we have to look carefully at how we're using our time in the school. There's a program called the Responsive Classroom Program, and that program has shown that when teachers take the time to greet the kids warmly when they come into the classroom, when they have a morning meeting that actually takes some time to help the kids kind of reset the emotional balance from where they might have come in from before the start of the school day, and where the kids are involved in talking about and making the rules and reflecting on what happens in the class, when they take that time, quote-unquote, away from direct instruction, academic gains improve.

So I think it's a misnomer that this work doesn't have a place in our current structure. And yes, some funding is needed to help get our teachers more knowledgeable about this and provide them with training, but actually it should be part of every teacher and every principal's ongoing preparation before they step into a classroom.

FLATOW: Should it be part of a teaching - how you teach teachers when they go to school themselves to become teachers?

BRACKETT: We definitely believe that's the case, and I think the team of researchers and practitioners who are all involved in this field of social, emotional learning agree that teacher preparation needs to include education in social and emotional skills; leaders need to be trained in this area, so that we can make emotional intelligence and social, emotional learning a permanent part of the way schools function.

FLATOW: Does this sort of training come in handy when you have difficult topics like the Trayvon Martin verdict, Sandy Hook, stuff like that?

ELIAS: Absolutely. In schools that we're working with that have social-emotional learning and character development curricula, when these problems take place, there's already a language to talk about this. They don't need to have some sort of curriculum imported. There's a comfort level dealing with real-life situations, and the kids have the language to be able to talk about it. As your caller said, the kids are already learning about constructive approaches to conflict, and they have a language to talk about their feelings.

And so many of the situations that come in are problem situations that our kids need help in figuring out how to take apart, understand and get a sense of control over. So, absolutely, it helps schools deal with crisis when they've got this in place already.

FLATOW: Let's go to Hillary(ph) in Washington, D.C. Hi, Hillary.

HILLARY: Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. I just - I know that your guest just addressed specifically what I was calling in about, which is having teacher training. As a kid, I didn't have a great home life. I had ADD. I was picked on. You know, a lot of times my hair was a mess, my clothes were wrinkled. I was staring out the window. And I had teachers, you know, pick on me publicly, to where the kids would laugh at me. And I think that just, you know, having teachers be aware of this would've made my school so much more productive.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Thanks for calling, Hillary. Good luck to you. That's an interesting story. Is it a familiar one, Marc?

BRACKETT: It is. I want to add to what Maurice was saying, for example, with Sandy Hook. When that tragedy occurred here in Connecticut, there were a lot of mixed messages that went out there, and many school leaders and teachers were saying things like, you know, we're not going to bring this up. We're not going to talk about this. Because they were so afraid of - and, obviously, it was a devastation.

But think about what the message is. Basically, what we're telling children is when bad things happen, we suppress them. We don't talk about them. And I don't think that's going to make for a healthy country.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is this a growing movement, or is this something that is still just being talked about peripherally, on the edges of education these days?

ELIAS: I think it's clearly growing. It's growing, in part, because the science is catching up to the observed reality that people are seeing in the classrooms and schools, and that's making a big difference. There's now evidence that well-run, well-implemented social emotional programs have a clear impact on not only academics, but on kids' behavior, both reducing some of the negative behaviors like anxiety and depression and also promoting positive behaviors like getting along with others and working in groups.

And as people see this, we are definitely seeing a growing momentum, even to the point where there's strong consideration being given to this becoming part of the upcoming revision of educational policy. This is not something that was being considered 10 years ago.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Marc Brackett and Maurice Elias. Is there something difficult - is there a barrier to this, to changing the accepted way? You know, education moves glacially sometimes. Do you have problems getting these ideas accepted?

BRACKETT: You know, we do have challenges, and those challenges come from other mandates. And as we talked earlier, there is a new common core standards in schools that have, you know, rigorous requirements for teachers in terms of reading, writing and other basic skills. But as Maurice and I have said, that when policymakers and people in other organizations in the workforce recognize through our research and through the evidence that we have in schools, that emotions matter, we think that there'll be reconsiderations about what gets taught in schools.

FLATOW: Let's go to Allen(ph) in Cincinnati. Hi, Allen.

ALLEN: Good afternoon. And thank you for your program today.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

ALLEN: I just wish to make a comment. Wonderful conversation, but the difficulty I'm running into is I'm hearing a lot about the relationship of the teacher to the student and the support of the student from the teachers in their emotional development. But there's no conversation about - it seems rather like the student and the teacher are being isolated, and that's all we need to take care of.

But I don't hear much emphasis about, well, what is the administration like? Not only of the administrators in a particular school, but of a school board in supporting the teachers in these programs, rather than giving us broad generalities. And in regards to goals for students, like No Child Left Behind, of course everyone's going to say, oh, we have a common goal, which is the student.

But what they don't talk about is, in many cases, the goals of the teachers and the way they can achieve them are quite different from the administrator and how he or she can achieve and meet their goals that's being watched by this - not only the school board, but by the government. Thank you.

FLATOW: You sound like a teacher.

ALLEN: No, sir. I am not.

FLATOW: Oh.

ALLEN: But thank you for the compliment.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Well, how do you react to that? Good point.

ELIAS: Well, I think the conversation has to extend to all the levels of folks involved in the school. The school is a community, and although the conversation has focused on teachers and kids, my work, Marc's work, is equally focused on working with school administrators. And, in fact, not 15 minutes ago, I was meeting with someone from the National School Boards Association, and she was expressing her enthusiasm for this kind of approach and its necessity in our schools.

And so I think the key is having and extending these conversations by going beyond that and working with the professional associations to make sure that they bring these ideas and training to their membership.

FLATOW: And how can they find that? How can they find out more about programs like these?

BRACKETT: Well, there's...

ELIAS: The central place for this information is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. It's www.casel.org. That's probably the single one-stop shopping center for work on emotional intelligence techniques in the classroom. Although there are also others, such as character.org, that are also valuable. So I think people wanting to see more will find a number of different places. And I think Marc's upcoming center is going to become one of those places.

FLATOW: What center is that, Marc?

BRACKETT: Our center is called the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and our URL is just ei.yale.edu.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So there are resources there for people listening to us who would like to get more involved. And it's not very - you folks are not very hard to find, and there are a lot of other people who can help them. All right.

ELIAS: Very true.

FLATOW: All right. Very interesting, gentlemen. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

BRACKETT: Thank you very much.

ELIAS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Marc Brackett is director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University in New Haven, and Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He's also director of the social and emotional learning lab there.

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