Choose both the arms and the legs

Emotional resilience is a key to surviving the challenges of today. It helps us adapt more easily to constantly changing circumstances.

So why do we continue to over-zealously support our children’s intellectual development over their emotional growth? In doing so, we are overlooking more than a decade of brain research that has confirmed children engage in learning at all levels.

We wouldn’t choose to help children develop their legs more than their arms. We want both the arms and the legs to grow healthy and strong. Emotional and cognitive learning are inextricably connected and both underpin human development. Yet, we continue to regard emotional learning as a separate development.

Children learn to negotiate their way through school – and later, life – using their social and emotional skills, which help them handle stress, manage relationships and make responsible decisions. These essential skills have to be taught in school – not just in a few progressive, select private schools in downtown Manhattan but in all the schools.

Studies have shown that children who are encouraged to build their social and emotional capacities in a safe environment tend to behave more responsibly in classrooms and feel more positively about school.

Such programs are most effective, when children receive them systematically throughout their education. The programs must actively involve teachers, parents, school administrators and community members. Emotional learning has to be part of the core curriculum. It cannot be a temporary measure aimed at addressing falling math scores or rising school violence.

While test scores should not be considered as the key indicator of performance, it is worthwhile to note that emotional development can help children become better math learners. A famous analysis of 200 studies involving 279,000 students from preschool through high school found that students enrolled in emotional learning programs scored at least 10 percentile points higher on standardized tests than those who did not.

Accelerated academic performance is only a secondary benefit of healthy emotional development. Children learn more effectively – and therefore perform better – when their social and emotional skills help them navigate their classroom environments and cultivate relationship with teachers.

Unfortunately, too many teachers report feeling bulldozed by the current appraisal system that overly emphasizes academic performance. For school administrators, limited budget makes it hard to integrate new programs into existing curricula.

Critics argue that emotional intelligence does not predict life success, and that SAT scores are still the best predictor of a student’s success in college. They also question whether a one-size-fits-all approach to emotional engagement would be appropriate for children with different emotional needs.

It is important to realize that test scores are only one part of what makes schools successful. The larger part is to graduate responsible and caring individuals who will become productive and engaged members of the society.

A number of states, including Illinois, New Jersey and New York, have embedded emotional learning into their core curriculum. In 2011, New York issued guidelines to help state schools address emotional and academic development together. Massachusetts has integrated emotional learning in policies to prevent bullying; and it is working together with schools to find innovative ways to implement them. These are encouraging signs.

A rigorous evidence base strongly points to the integration of emotional learning at the heart of education reform. It’s time we put this knowledge into practice.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2013. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

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