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Interview: Daniel Goleman

Excerpts from an interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and other books.

Taped on or about May 1, 2001

Discussion of "Feelings Count: Emotion and Learning"

Let's think about the relationship between emotion and learning. A child who learns best is one who is paying attention, who is alert, who is feeling upbeat, optimistic. But then think about the reality of everyday life in a school, for a young child. Somebody poked you with a pencil, or you're playing soccer and somebody kicks your ball away, these things get you upset, these are the real life melodramas of a child's life. They're very preoccupying. Emotions are extremely powerful in the brain, when you are in an emotional state it takes over your capacity to pay attention. And that means you have less attention left to pay attention to what the teacher is telling you. In other words, to learn. So by managing a child's emotions, or helping that child calm themselves down, or settle the dispute, and get back into a state that they can learn, you're actually enhancing that child's ability to learn.

In order to help a child get into the state where they're ready to learn, a teacher has to realize that the emotional reality in the classroom matters, and that the teacher is a mentor. That the teacher is in the key position to help children get for themselves the critical abilities of emotional intelligence. First, being aware of what they're feeling. If you're not aware of what you're feeling you won't be able to handle that emotion. It's already controlling you. So awareness, and then managing emotion, finding ways, learning ways to calm yourself, to soothe emotions. To pause before you act. Also empathy, realizing what other kids are feeling, that is the key of getting along, to creating a harmonious classroom. Then social problem solving, working out problems in relationships. Those are the four key skills that every single teacher can help a child learn. And if you do, then that child will be better able to learn the content, because their emotions will be more under control, not controlling them.

When a teacher is handling emotional flareup among kids, It looks like that it is just classroom management. You know she is just trying to keep the kids orderly and so on. It's more than that. It's an education in emotional intelligences, and how to be intelligent about your emotions. In other words, children are learning every time they go through an exercise of how to work out a conflict on the playground. They're learning something very real and very important that will hold them in good steed for the rest of their lives. That is, how you handle interpersonal conflict, how you get along better, how to be harmonious. Interestingly, if you look at what employers want in kids straight out of school, in their first job? The basics of education are about seventh on the list. The first five or six things they want are the ability to collaborate, and harmonize, the ability to have confidence, integrity and responsibility, in other words, elements of emotional intelligences, which are the kind of skills that a teacher is inculcating when she pays attention to the social and emotional learning, to the kinds of things that look so innocuous. You know, working out a playground hassle. But really, there are some really important crucial lessons for life that children are picking up.

There is, in earnest, a paradox in our educational system. And that is that we focus on grades and test scores, as though that would be the ultimate predictor of how well a child will do in their career. The truth is that what those abilities determine is what career or role, or profession, or job a child can enter, what job they can hold down. Because they stand for the level of cognitive complexity that, that child can handle. Some jobs like medicine require a very high degree of those abilities. The paradox is that once people are in the pool of people within their field, those abilities drop away as predictors of success. They don't matter so much anymore, because everyone in the field has crossed the same threshold of ability. There is a very narrow range of variation within the field in IQ. What does matter is emotional intelligence. Something that we don't systematically teach our children, but I firmly believe we should. In other words if you look at studies within a profession, if you look at studies of top executives, you look at studies of engineers, you look at studies of lawyers or physicians. And you see what distinguishes the stars from the average it's no longer IQ. It's no longer the things they learned in school. For example, what determines who's a leader in a field has to do with how well they handle themselves and how well they handle relationships. Can you articulate a vision from deep in yourself that will inspire and move and motivate other people? These are abilities that have to do with something that we don't bother teaching. But ironically, this is what is going to determine whether you're actually a success within your field.

[looking at the segment in "Feelings Count" that features Kristin Bijur]
Take for example Kristin in San Francisco. She is doing a superb job of this kind of social-emotional education. She's taking the time to teach the kids the right lesson. She is showing them how to manage their own emotions, she is showing them how to empathize, and understand what others are feeling. She's showing them how to work out disagreements. These are the abilities that these children will need for the rest of their lives. And in the standard way of doing education – focusing only on "are you going to be ready for the achievement test" – we ignore this, but in a many ways, this is the most crucial part of a child's education.


One reason an emotionally safe environment is so important in a school is that learning is risky. What you do as a teacher is push children to challenge themselves – to try the next level of difficulty in multiplication, to do the next level of difficulty in reading. In other words, children are increasingly being asked to raise the bar on their own performance. And we know from 50 years of research in psychology that being anxious makes people risk adverse. That is, when you're anxious you don't feel good about yourself, you're preoccupied, you're worrying, "I won't be able to do it." And so you pull back – you start to fear failure.

[looking at the segment in "Feelings Count" that features Nancy Flanagan]
When you're talking about kids just on the verge of adolescence, for example, then peers matter enormously. Friendships, relationships, that's what children are really preoccupied and concerned with. They're also achievement, about how they're doing in school, but how they're getting along with other kids, are they popular enough, do kids want to play with them or not, are they the one who is invited over to the house after school or not? These are the thing that are really preoccupying kids, so this is a beautiful time to start introducing the relationship skills. How you work out conflicts, how you can get along well with other kids. Kids really want to learn these things. So they're very eager for this kind of education.


When it comes to how to be with students for a teacher, you should first think about your own teachers. Who were the teachers that you loved, who really inspired you, who you learned best from? They're the ones that respected you, who paid attention to you, who were authentic with you, who tuned into you, who cared. If you don't care about students they won't care about you, because there is something false in that relationship. Teaching really depends on a certain emotional bond between teacher and student. If that bond isn't there, then students start to tune out.


Emotional intelligence is crucial in education for a few reasons. One is that the emotional reality of a child determines whether or not he or she can learn. A child who is emotionally preoccupied – emotionally upset – is not able to pay attention, and therfore can't learn from the beginning. So children need help in managing their emotions. That's one reason; the other is that emotional intelligence – that is, the ability to manage ourselves, handle our own lives, and to handle our relationships, is crucial to life. These are essential life skills. If we don't teach them to children then we're in trouble. And in fact, there's very strong data, which suggests that emotional intelligence abilities are on the decline in American kids. It started with a study first in the mid '70's, then again 15 years later which showed that. This is a random sample of more than 3,000 kids representing the entire population of U.S. children, evaluated by their teachers and parents, adults who knew them very well. It showed that children were declining off the board on these abilities. On average they're more anxious, more lonely, more disobedient, more angry. In other words, they went down on 42 indicators, up on none. This doesn't mean that there aren't great kids individually, of course there are. But on average, something very troubling is happening to American children. For that reason I feel that, as a society, we need to pay attention to this problem, because it is showing up as shooting in schools, kids who have a setback like, kids who are teasing them, who come back with a gun. These are emotional outbursts out of control. If we would help children learn these basic abilities in the first place, then we know from well-controlled studies that violence goes down in schools, it doesn't go up. In other words, these are skills that we need in order for our children to survive the perils of the teen years, and become adults. And also in adulthood these are the skills which will determine whether once our children are in their jobs or over the course of career, they'll be successful or not.


I think that teachers should realize that they're in the crucial position. They're the ones who, just as part of day to day classroom management, can be teaching the skills. Even if a school doesn't have a full-fledged program in social-emotional learning, a teacher can be herself the agent of that learning. And if a school does have a curriculum, then I think that the teacher is in very good shape. Because it is part of the classroom routine that's expected of the teacher. But even just in the name of helping children pay attention, settling problems on the playground, and so on, you can be teaching social-emotional skills. You can be helping children with emotional intelligence.

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