We hear it every day, from every sector of society, and across the world. An engaged, friendly child becomes increasingly hostile. A child who was once bright and bubbly becomes lethargic and barely functional. A child who once had a sense of well-being now suffers crippling anxiety. And in the worst case scenarios, a child who was the light of someone’s life became mysteriously depressed and is now gone, by their own hands.
After the fact, we look at each other and ask, “How did everybody miss the signals?”
As a culture, we are blind to the information contained in the emotion system because of an at least 3000-year-old bias. The Bible, the Stoic philosophers, and almost all of western literature, philosophy, and religion, taught us that emotions are unreliable, inconvenient, idiosyncratic sources of information, that get in the way of sound decision-making and the ability to learn. The study of intelligence, which began around 1900, stripped its inquiry of emotions, deeming their impact irrelevant. Now we know that emotions not only inform cognition but are themselves an intelligent system.
Our own and others’ research shows that those with more developed emotion skills make fewer errors in judgment, have healthier relationships, are better at pursuing genuine satisfaction, and have a greater sense of well-being. Yet, in spite of all the evidence that shows the profound intelligence and information contained in the emotion system, in spite of all the studies that prove the impact of emotion on cognition, and well-being, we continue to insist that emotion and reason are enemies.
For example, instead of acknowledging the information in emotions, many teachers are asked to focus on moderating the behavior of a classroom of 30 children, 10 of which are likely experiencing a major trauma: divorce in the family, an alcoholic parent, abuse, or the death of a close relative. There will be at least one child who is extremely anxious but feels they can’t let anyone know or they’ll be seen as weak. Another might be proud but is afraid that if they say so others will get mad at them. And another might be too excited to sit still because an idea is about to burst out. Our cultural mindset demands that a lid be put tightly on this emotion stew, all while these strong feelings are keeping kids from learning, boiling over, inevitably, in bad behavior, lack of attention and absorption, making class dynamics difficult.
So, where do many teachers instinctively begin to counter this problem? By believing they have to enter the classroom bubbling with enthusiasm, and smile, smile, smile: “Good morning boys and girls, isn’t it just great to be alive? Aren’t we just so grateful for the sun and sky and trees and our wonderful families? Our amazing classmates and the beautiful books we have to read?”
This is the result of another profound emotion system information blindness, that happiness is the only emotion we should feel, and if we are not happy, if our kids aren’t showing visible signs of happiness, then we, and they have failed. What happens to a child who comes in sad because a grandparent just passed away? What happens to a child that is more temperamentally subdued?
Positive emotions do open the mind to new possibilities, creating flexibility, openness, efficiency, and a preference for variety. Joy brings the urge to play, push limits, be creative. Pride makes us want to share good news, envision greater achievements. Love helps us explore and savor intimate moments.
But positive emotions cannot fix everything. Imagine feeling smiley and bubbly, giddy with excitement as a car cuts a corner and nearly runs us over. It’s healthy fear, not joy, that makes us jump out of the way. Negative emotions have a constructive function: they help narrow and focus our attention. It’s sadness, not happiness, that helps us work through a difficult problem. Too much enthusiasm won’t bring needed consensus to a group—it will disperse the energy necessary for reasoning through a problem whether math or family dynamics. Sadness is good for critical work, being detail-oriented, for evaluating and fine tuning ideas with a realistic approach. Pessimism can transform anxiety into action—imagining worst case scenarios prepares you for anything. Anxiety pushes us to problem solve and take corrective action. Guilt acts as a moral compass. Peacefulness will put people to sleep if inspiration is needed to motivate. Happy, high energy enthusiasm won’t be convincing when you need to make a crucial point; for that, you have to touch the forcefulness of anger. And it’s anger, not empathy, that causes one child to spring into action to defend another child who’s being bullied.
All emotions contain purpose and information. They help us to answer important questions like: Do I approach or avoid this person or situation? Am I welcome or unwelcome in this environment? Are my students attentive or bored? How is the way I handle my own emotions and those of others affecting the quality of my relationships, whether others trust me? Am I making a sound decision or a biased one? It’s not that one emotion is all bad and another is all good–it’s whether we understand the purpose of our emotions and use them wisely. Used well, all emotions become resources that can be drawn upon to make the most informed decisions.
For the last twenty years, my team and I have been working on a framework, based on Mayer and Salovey’s ability model of emotional intelligence, called RULER, to articulate the skills that children, and the adults who raise and teach them, need in order to use their emotions wisely. Skills that help us to:
- Recognize emotions: Unpack our own and others’ emotional experiences.
- Understand emotions: Know the causes for and consequences of feelings.
- Label emotions: Develop the vocabulary to be precise about emotional experiences.
- Express emotions: Help us skillfully express our emotions to others.
- Regulate emotions: Support us in using helpful strategies for managing our feelings.
Our own and others’ research across the globe shows that children and adults with more developed emotion skills are better learners, make more informed decisions, build and maintain meaningful relationships, and perform better both academically and in the workplace.
Over the last decade we also have created a schoolwide, evidence-based approach to developing emotion skills, also called RULER, which was designed to infuse emotion skills into the DNA of a school and improve interactions between and among school leaders, teachers, students, and families. Evidence is accumulating for RULER’s positive impact on academic performance, social and emotional skills, classroom climate, bullying, teacher instructional supports, and teacher stress and burnout.
How emotion skills are taught and learned depends on age, but, unlike learning gymnastics, there is no age at which it is too early or too late to start. The parts of the brain needed to learn RULER skills are active from birth and until old age. The first step in the process is giving ourselves and our loved ones the permission to feel.