Our unresolved, unacknowledged feelings can lead us into anxiety, arguments and worse. Some educators believe it’s time to give our kids emotional instruction along with their ABCs.
Who taught you how to identify and manage your emotions, how to recognize them when they arose and navigate your way through them? For many adults, the answer is: No one. You hacked your way through those confusing thickets on your own. Although navigating our inner landscape was not something that was taught to us in school, it should be, contend a number of researchers. They believe emotional skills should rank as high in importance in children’s educations as math, reading, history and science.
Why do emotions matter? Research has found that people who are emotionally skilled perform better in school, have better relationships, and engage less frequently in unhealthy behaviors. Plus, as more and more jobs are becoming mechanized, so-called soft skills — which include persistence, stress management and communication — are seen as a way to make humans irreplaceable by machine. There has been a growing effort in American schools to teach social and emotional learning (SEL), but these tend to emphasize interpersonal skills like cooperation and communication.
Kids are often taught to ignore or cover over their emotions. Many Western societies view emotions as an indulgence or distraction, says University of California-Santa Barbara sociologist Thomas Scheff, a proponent of emotional education. Our emotions can give us valuable information about the world, but we’re often taught or socialized not to listen to them. Just as dangerous, Scheff says, is the practice of hiding one emotion behind another. He has found that men, in particular, tend to hide feelings of shame under anger, aggression and, far too often, violence.
How does one go about teaching emotions? One of the most prominent school programs for teaching about emotions is RULER, developed in 2005 by Marc Brackett, David Caruso and Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The multiyear program is used in more than 1,000 schools, in the US and abroad, across grades K-8. The name, RULER, is an acronym for its five goals: recognizing emotions in oneself and others; understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; labeling emotional experiences with an accurate and diverse vocabulary; and expressing and regulating emotions in ways that promote growth.
As a strategy, children are taught to focus on the underlying theme of an emotion rather than getting lost in trying to define it. When an emotion grips you, explains Stern, understanding its thematic contours can help “name it to tame it.” Even though anger is experienced differently by different people, she explains, “the theme underlying anger is the same. It’s injustice or unfairness. The theme that underlies disappointment is an unmet expectation. The theme that underlies frustration is feeling blocked on your way to a goal. Pinning down the theme can “help a person be seen and understood and met where she is,” says Stern.
RULER’s lessons are woven into all classes and subjects. So, for example, if “elated’ is the emotional vocabulary word under discussion, a teacher would ask students in an American history class to link “elated” to the voyage of Lewis and Clark. Instruction reaches beyond the classroom, too; kids are prompted to talk with their parents or caregivers about when they last felt elated. Researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has found RULER schools tend to see less-frequent bullying, lower anxiety and depression, more student leadership and higher grades. So why isn’t emotional education the norm rather than the exception?
Surprising fact: While scientists and educators agree on the need to teach emotions, they don’t agree on how many there are and what they are. RULER’s curriculum consists of hundreds of “feeling words,” including curious, ecstatic, hopeless, frustrated, jealous, relieved and embarrassed. Other scholars’ lists of emotions have ranged in number from two to eleven. Scheff suggests starting students out with six: grief, fear, anger, pride, shame and excessive fatigue.
While psychology began to be studied as a science more than a century ago, up to now it has focused more on identifying and treating disorders. Scheff, who has spent years studying one taboo emotion — shame — and its destructive impact on human actions, admits, “We don’t know much about emotions, even though we think we do, and that goes for the public and for researchers.” Or, as Virginia Woolf so beautifully put it, “The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted.”
Parents can start to encourage their kids’ emotional awareness with a simple prompt “Tell me about some of your best moments,” a phrase Scheff has used to initiate discussions with his university students. But he and Stern agree that schools can’t wait until academics have sorted out the name and number of emotions before they act. “We know we have emotions all day long, whether we’re aware of them or not,” Stern points out. Let’s teach kids how to ride those moment-by-moment waves, instead of getting tossed around.