Social Emotional Literacy

NYT- sad, angry

Sad and Angry

All feelings are ok – how we interpret and deal with them may not always be.

Research has shown that emotions can either enhance or hinder our ability to work and learn. They affect our attention and our memory. If we are very anxious about something, or agitated, we can’t easily focus on what’s being taught or discussed.

Mark Brackett (research psychologist at Yale University) notes:

For children, school is an emotional caldron: a constant stream of academic and social challenges that can generate feelings ranging from loneliness to euphoria. Educators and parents have long assumed that a child’s ability to cope with such stresses is either innate — a matter of temperament — or else acquired “along the way,” in the rough and tumble of ordinary interaction. But in practice, Brackett says, many children never develop those crucial skills. “It’s like saying that a child doesn’t need to study English because she talks with her parents at home…Emotional skills are the same. A teacher might say, ‘Calm down!’ — but how exactly do you calm down when you’re feeling anxious? Where do you learn the skills to manage those feelings?”

In her New York Times article “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” by Jennifer Kahn, the author explores the trend of teaching social-emotional skills in schools, and how it is getting implemented.

Social Emotional Literacy (S.E.L) programs are designed to give children the skills to recognize and regulate their emotions, to demonstrate care and concern for others, to make responsible decisions and establish positive relationships. Where they have been implemented they also seem to provide tools for the prevention of bullying.

Studies have found that children who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well academically but also to have better relationships and to suffer less from depression and anxiety.

Kahn goes on to describe a classroom situation she witnessed:

The value of such skills was evident later that day, when I sat in on a fourth-grade class meeting, in which students worked through interpersonal conflicts as a group. 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.


Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.” It’s a valuable skill, coloring how we interpret events and handle their emotional content. Does a casual remark from an acquaintance get cataloged as a criticism and obsessed over? Or is it reconsidered and dismissed as unintentional?


Depending on our personalities, and how we’re raised, the ability to reframe may or may not come easily.

And I would add that most of us adults are still working on developing those valuable skills, for as William Ury said in his 2010 TED Talk “A walk from No to Yes”:

“When angry, you will give the very best speech you will ever regret”.

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