Saturday, September 28, 2013

Does emotional processing in the classroom really lower anxiety and make us more successful?

When psychologists and education experts talk about emotional intelligence in the abstract, they include everything from emotional awareness to self-restraint and perseverance—especially when they talk about life success. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught, reporter Jennifer Kahn follows suit:

So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures.
But when psychologists and education experts talk about teaching emotional intelligence in schools, they quickly move from obvious statements like this one to a nearly-exclusive focus on the mushiest member of the self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness triad—reveling, in particular, in emotional awareness, and in the sharing and processing of emotions.

We see this, for example, in the various snapshots included in the Times article. Here’s one:
As the children formed a circle, Wade [their teacher] asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.
Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.
“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.
“And what did you do? What words did you use?”
“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’”
Wade nodded slowly, then looked around the room. “What do you think? Does that sound like a good thing to say?” When the kids nodded vigorously, Wade clapped his hands once. “O.K., let’s practice. Play like I’m your mommy.” Scooting into the center of the circle, he gave the boy, Reedhom, a small toy bear to stand in for the iPhone, then began to berate him in a ridiculous booming voice. “Lalalala!” Wade hollered, looming overhead in a goofy parody of parental frustration. “Why are you doing that, Reedhom? Reedhom, why?” In the circle, the other kids rocked back and forth in delight. One or two impulsively begin to crawl in Reedhom’s direction, as if joining a game.
Still slightly teary, Reedhom began to giggle. Abruptly, Wade held up a finger. “Now, we talked about this. What can Reedhom do?” Recollecting himself, Reedhom sat up straight. “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me,” he announced firmly.
“Good,” Wade said. “And maybe your mommy will say: ‘I’m sorry, Reedhom. I had to go somewhere in a hurry, and I got a little mad. I’m sorry.’”
But what if she doesn’t say that? What if Reedhom’s mom is such a mentally unstable live wire that she will only flip out further in response to “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me”?

The idea behind Wade’s "social-emotional learning approach” is that, in the words of Yale University senior research psychologist Marc Bracket, “If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?” But what if being prodded by teachers to talk about the emotional dynamics of their home lives makes children more anxious? And what if, in Reedhom’s case in particular, the ultimate result is even more anxiety both at school and at home?

Here’s another snapshot—this one of 4th graders:
Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.
Does recounting this, and being pressured to "finally admit" what sounds like the expected answer to a rather loaded question, reduce Anthony’s anxiety in the short and long terms? Or might this instead make school life even harder for him? It’s not clear from this article whether anyone cares enough to investigate.

Then there’s Marc Brackett’s RULER program, which I blogged about earlier.
In the Ruler cosmology, social-emotional lessons aren’t restricted to one class a week, or even to one class a day. Rather, such moments of observation are expected to pervade every class, from English and math to music and P.E. “Emotional skills aren’t something that develop overnight,” Brackett emphasized. “For most people, it will take a lot of practice.”
Starting in kindergarten, students begin each day by locating themselves on the “mood meter,” a set of four colored squares — blue for moods like malaise, yellow for excitement — that represent the four quadrants of emotional experience. (The other squares are red, for anger, and green, for calm.) The goal is to develop children’s capacity for self-reflection and critical thinking.
Critical thinking? Maybe it wouldn’t bother Brackett to begin each day by publically identifying his mood, but, for the more private of kids, such activities provoke rather than lessen anxiety, and they do so without enhancing any critical thinking.

But when it comes to Brackett’s program, it’s Brackett’s preferences that prevail:
“We never say, ‘The best thing to do is to take three deep breaths,’ ” Brackett told me. “For some people, taking deep breaths works. But for me, when I take deep breaths, I just think about how I can wring your neck.”
Thus, once again, it’s all about emotional awareness and emotional processing—and less about self-restraint. As for perseverance, it gets no mention at all.

Not that Brackett himself doesn’t show perseverance, inflicting his preferences not just on students, but also on teachers:
Even now, Brackett says, many educators don’t grasp the importance of emotional awareness. For Ruler to work, he maintains, the tools need to be embraced not just by students but also by teachers and administrators. “They have to be able to walk around that school and say: ‘Hey, where are you on the mood meter? I’m in the yellow right now. I’m feeling excited, how about you?’ or ‘Man, I had a really tough morning. I had to take a meta-moment because that parent was so crazy, I really had to manage my emotions.’ ”

Brackett tells Kahn that as a child he was bullied “horrifically” and believes that Ruler could have prevented this. But maybe it would have made it worse. Again, it’s not clear that anyone cares enough to investigate.

Emotional intelligence experts, for their part, are busy doing other things:
George Lucas’s Edutopia foundation has lobbied for the teaching of social and emotional skills for the past decade the State of Illinois passed a bill in 2003 making “social and emotional learning” a part of school curriculums. Thousands of schools now use one of the several dozen programs, including Brackett’s own, that have been approved as “evidence-based” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit. All told, there are now tens of thousands of emotional-literacy programs running in cities nationwide.
But, as the article notes several times, there’s little evidence that these “evidence based” Social Emotional Learning programs actually work:
It’s… still unclear whether S.E.L. programs create the kind of deep and lasting change they aspire to.
So far, however, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L., and even fewer have included the kind of rigorous, controlled trials needed to prove that acquiring a specific skill produces a specific outcome over the long term.
In 2010, a report from the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated seven different S.E.L. programs found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.
But with thousands of schools jumping on the bandwagon, who cares?
A school interested in trying Ruler must sign a three-year commitment that involves regular training, including Brackett’s four-day “Anchors of Emotional Intelligence” workshop, which costs $1,800 per person. Though Brackett emphasized to me that Ruler is used by a variety of schools, in a range of income brackets, the program costs significantly more than Second Step, especially when teacher and staff training is factored in. (Only about 500 schools use Ruler.)
Only about 500. Second Step, meanwhile, has been adopted by approximately 25,000 schools in the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to the other members of the “life success” triad: self-restraint and perseverance? Especially perseverance, which gets no mention at all? Perhaps our schools are reluctant to focus too much on this one, because that would mean making the school day more academically challenging rather than watering it down with mood-metering and emotional processing sessions.


Auntie Ann said...

What's rather shocking to me is in that in these scenarios it's the teacher who is bullying, forcing the kids to do things and talk about things that they don't want to, or are embarrassing, or will invite the ridicule of bullies when the teacher's back is turned, etc.

It's one thing to talk through fictitious scenarios--I see no reason why the teacher couldn't have used a made-up situation for this lesson--and it is quite another to force children, who don't have the rational mentality to know what to share and what to not share, and who easily are intimidated by adults, to divulge their own personal and private lives in front of all of their peers.

I find these snippets rather horrifying.

Auntie Ann said...

And another thing: how many social-emotional problems can be alleviated with nothing more than an hour of recess and free play every day.

Instead of looking for analytical and adult-based answers, maybe we should just let kids have more time to play.

Anonymous said...

Classroom teachers need to know how to prevent bullying (but not with discussion circles, please) and they need to be able to listen well if students need that -- up to and including asking students who seem troubled if there is anything they want to talk about, AFTER class. But there are very few teachers whom I would trust with the kind of dynamic you're describing for Ruler, and it's an imposition on kids who are emotionally stable to waste their time on this sort of activity.

Anonymous said...

Play would teach any number of social and emotional skills, but the teacher wouldn't get to be involved at all.

Anonymous said...

Play teaches lots of good social and emotional skills - if adults stay out of it and let kids sort things out on their own. Most adults today - both parents and school personnel - won't let this happen. Today's play is supervised and directed by adults.