Emotional Intelligence -- The Forgotten Key to Educational Success

The movie, Waiting for "Superman", laid blame for our broken K-12 public school system with teacher unions. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan suggested teachers should come from the top third of their graduating classes. President Obama in a recent speech at TechBoston called for more reform and more money. Theories abound for fixing our schools, but the debate ignores an underlying current. The root of our failing education system from K-12 all the way through college is a lack of one basic skill: the ability to manage our emotions.

According to Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, emotional management, the ability to identify, appropriately express and manage our emotions, forms the foundation for learning and making decisions. It is the platform on which other essential skills, like reading, writing, math, even social skills are built. As it is a skill, it has to be taught and continually practiced.

Dr. Goleman's research has found that academic achievement scores in students who learn key emotional skills improve by an average of 12 percent to 15 percent. These results underscore what literally happens in a brain distracted by emotions -- it has precious little cognitive ability available to take in new information or critically think.

So why doesn't every school teach emotional management and why is it not taught every year of school and even through adulthood? The answer lies in our culture's general discomfort with feelings.

According to Carole Robin, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in organizational behavior, our ability to be in touch with and express our feelings is slowly socialized out of us. She gives the example of a toddler who bumps his head: the mother rushes to him and says "You're okay. You're okay." We're told to be okay even if we're not.

Then we enter school and we're told to be rational and not emotional. Later in the workplace, we're trained to put on armor. So over time, our ability to even access emotion gets thwarted; in her words, "our emotional muscles atrophy."

Though we're trained to tamp down our emotions, it's an illusion, because emotions don't go away unless addressed. "Human beings are leaky," Dr. Robin adds. Meaning, if you're not aware of your emotions you can't manage them and when you don't manage your emotions you encounter all manner of unintended results.

Some of which we can already see not only in poor student test scores and the escalating number of high school drop outs, but also in adults with enormous school debt and no jobs.

The reality is the circumstances of the lives of students and their teachers, for that matter, contain difficulties. But instead of facing them with key emotional skills, these difficulties become distractions that are felt in classrooms across the nation. Students and adults, alike, will only be able to learn more or be effective, if all of their faculties are focused on the task at hand, which is only possible if their emotional concerns are addressed and managed.

Dr. Robin's very popular class in inter-personal dynamics at Stanford, ironically dubbed "Touchy Feely" by students, offers a starting point. The class teaches future business leaders how emotions underlie communication and behavior. Armed with the vocabulary of feelings, students practice identifying and appropriately expressing their emotions. Lack of this simple skill can impede a leader's success in her environment -- the workplace, much like it affects the workplace of students and teachers -- the classroom.

While there are organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) working to integrate self-awareness training into the curriculum of schools, there don't seem to be any organizations focused on educating the public. Frankly, CASEL and other organizations with similar goals won't be successful at a scale to make a true difference unless our culture addresses the stigma attached to emotions.

We begin by understanding and addressing how emotions underlie everything we do. We may just find we're the superheroes.