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The Call for the Formalization of Emotional Education in Schools

The emotional education debate includes big questions like, why do we need to teach children about emotions in school at all, and how should such teachings be implemented. Schools are torn between taking responsibility for the emotional education of its students, and with it the liability when things don't go as planned, and leaving it as it is today up to the parents.

Educators, long disturbed by school children's lagging in math and reading, are realizing there is a different and more alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy. Signs of the deficiency can be seen in violent incidents, such as the shooting of Ian and Tyrone, growing ever more common in American schools [Goleman, 1995].

Most social scientists agree with Daniel Goleman that there is a need for emotional education in a formalized setting. Recent events like the April 1999 school shooting at the Littleton High School in Colorado continue to open the eyes of the public to the problems that can accompany an underdeveloped emotional intelligence. While some scientists have been studying the effects of the emotional development of children for years, others are just beginning to look at these questions. It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy for people to want to make a change in the current educational system.

Children who gained more insight into their emotional lives, were better able to cope with distress and anxiety, to the extent that they gained insight into the causes of those emotions [Harris, 1989].

If the education of the emotions were merely a matter of development it would proceed under its own momentum, and not require the help or intervention of teachers. In the case of human beings an essential part of this environment is the presence of other human beings who not only attend to them, meeting their physical needs, but interact with them. For man is essentially a social being. The aims of the `education of the emotions' are to provide a suitable environment for the unfolding of the affective aspects of the person [Dunlop, 1984].

Perhaps the most disturbing data comes from a massive survey of parents and teachers and shows a worldwide trend for the present generation of children to be more troubled emotionally than the last: more lonely and depresses more angry and unruly, more nervous and prone to worry, more impulsive and aggressive [Goleman, 1995].

We take emotional development for granted. For the most part, we regard it as something that just happens... Thus, retarded emotional development, emotional immaturity, poor impulse control, and so forth are used to explain a person's inappropriate social behavior and many other kinds of pathological behavior. But perhaps we should look at ... emotional maturity as a desirable educational and social objective. To do this we must give up the idea that our emotions are innate and just transferred from one object to another... I would argue that emotional development is a product of emotional education. It is not just something that occurs naturally but it is a manifestation of parental and caretaker values. They listen to their children's comments and questions and respond to them [Dupont, 1994].

If there is a remedy I feel it must lie in how we prepare our young for life. At present we leave the emotional education of our children to chance, with ever more disastrous results. As Aristotle says, the problem is not with emotionality, but with the appropriateness of emotion and its expression. The question is how can we bring intelligence to our emotions - and civility to our streets and caring to our communal life?

Abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustration; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one's moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope; to recognize emotions in our selves and others ... can indeed be learned and improved upon by children - if we bother to teach them [Goleman, 1995].

Rather than dwell on the negative, sensationalizing the problem, Daniel Goleman has searched for a solution. He has come up with a curriculum for teachers to integrate into their classroom sessions designed to augment a child's emotional development. The opponents to this implementation argue that it is not appropriate to teach kids about emotions in classrooms, rather it is the job of the family to educate their young. This opposition is beginning to wane, especially in the face of huge tragedies, linked to the underdevelopment of emotional intelligence.

On the one hand, schools are designed to keep kids busy learning about the outer world and not about themselves. On the other hand, families are not helping... They are either disintegrating, they can't afford to waste time listening to `teenage issues', or they just don't know how to handle the complexity of issues involved... When adults are gone, kids spend time with technology (i.e. video games, online forums, e-mail, etc.). However, most of these technologies do not support children's introspection and communication about their insights to others. Only when crisis happens, does the Internet become a collective Freud's coach. Why wait so long?

I believe that we can design technological environments that would engage kids... on a regular basis, not only after a crisis. I also believe that technology by itself won't be the solution to complex social problems that give rise to events like the one in Colorado. However, I am convinced that as researchers designing learning environments, we can add our two cents to provide better technological tools to help people connect with their inner world and their communities (Excerpt from an email from Marina Umaschi Bers to the MIT Media Lab. (1999))

The use of technology to augment the emotional education in schools and at home is an exciting prospect that has not been fully realized. The Affective Tigger is one of these tools. The larger goal of the Affective Tigger project is to assess the viability of using a computer controlled toy to teach the skills of emotional intelligence in an explicit manner. The choice of a toy, specifically a plush animal, was a result of the desire to appeal to the preschool aged child.

The preschool years are crucial ones for laying foundation skills, and there is some evidence that Head Start can have beneficial long-term emotional and social effects on the lives of its graduates even into their early adult years - fewer drug problems and arrests, better marriages, greater earning power. The Kindergarten year marks a peak ripening of the `social emotions' - feelings such as insecurity and humility, jealousy and envy, pride and confidence. Children in the youngest grades get lessons in self-awareness, relationships, and decision-making. Some of the most effective programs in emotional literacy were developed as a response to a specific problem, notably violence. As a society we have not bothered to make sure every child is taught the essentials of handling anger or resolving conflicts positively - nor have we bothered to teach empathy, impulse control, or any of the other fundamentals of emotional competence. By leaving the emotional lessons children learn to chance, we risk largely wasting the window of opportunity presented by the slow maturation of the brain to help children cultivate a healthy emotional repertoire [Goleman, 1995].

next up previous contents
Next: Affective Computing Up: Project Motivations Previous: Project Motivations

Dana L Kirsch
Tue May 25 08:59:22 EDT 1999