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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    Teacher’s Circle: Emotional intelligence hard to teach, but critical to learn

    Consider the word “intelligence.” It’s something we value highly in our culture. In fact, it’s largely what our schools are so keen on developing.

    We want to help kids be smart, or at least smarter! Give them skills so they can be better at doing all the thinking that intelligent people do.

    But what does intelligence really mean? What kind of intelligence are we talking about?

    In the past, intelligence meant pretty much one thing: you were smart. Now we can think about intelligence as a kaleidoscope of capacities. Currently, intelligence is often viewed as a set of eight discrete fields, although some number them at nine, and others go as high as 12.

    Whether there is any scientific support for the theory of multiple intelligences is a subject of debate, but there is one type of intelligence that might rise to the top in terms of its impact on human experience, and that is the skill of emotional intelligence.

    Emotional intelligence became a part of the mainstream conversation thanks to the work of Daniel Goleman and his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence.” Since then, research at the Harvard Business School has supported the finding that emotional intelligence counts twice as much as IQ when it comes to job success.

    But let’s put future success aside for the moment, and simply focus on what is happening in our schools now.

    We are well into the 2022-2023 school year, and what are teachers experiencing? Along with the continuing saga of too much work and not enough time, support, and understanding, there is the challenge of student behavior. So many students do not seem to be able to manage their emotions.

    Sometimes that shows up as uncontrolled anxiety and depression, and sometimes it shows up as explosive anger or frustration.

    There are so many ways in which emotions can get the better of us, and that’s not exclusive to students. School personnel are sometimes equally plagued by a pervasive feelings of depression, being overwhelmed, and irritation. The simple truth is that all of us are swimming in the feeling of our thinking all the time.

    We are all subject to emotional storms, thoughts and feelings that seem to fill every square inch of experience, leaving us crippled and scared, wondering if we really are as broken as we think.

    Enter emotional intelligence.

    Emotional intelligence is broadly defined as recognizing, understanding, and managing our own emotions as well as understanding the role emotions play in the people around us. Sounds good enough on the surface, but along the way of learning and teaching about human emotions, a deep misunderstanding has emerged. Somehow we came to see certain emotions as acceptable, even good, and others as, well, not!

    You can see this unfolding in your own daily life. Over the course of the day, you experience a range of feelings. It’s a big part of being human! But how many of us have really taken the time to sit with all the complex feelings, good / bad / and indifferent, that unfold over the course of a single day?

    There is an inherent belief in our culture that some emotions are acceptable, even desirable, while others are problematic, troublesome, and need to be “managed.” We don’t talk about managing joy, or love, or wonder; in contrast, anger is viewed as so dysfunctional that it has its own training program known by everyone as “anger management”!

    So when those difficult emotions arise, we want them to go away, and the sooner the better. It’s one thing to feel peace, delight, or happiness. But let one uncomfortable emotion dare to show up, and all we want to do is get rid of it.The question then becomes, how do we do that?

    So much depends on our relationship to what we are experiencing. Oftentimes, instead of meeting our intense emotions with curiosity, we want to flee. And our culture is happy to help us with that.

    What does it have to offer? In a word, distraction! Your mind will help you with that by providing a hundred and one better ideas: eat, drink, and smoke used to be the most popular, but now we have added scroll, shop, or just watch more Youtube. As a result, we don’t learn how to be okay with our more challenging emotions, and that is a very real problem.

    Common wisdom reminds us: “What you resist, persists.” Emotions that are met with fear and avoidance don’t go away; rather, they are more likely to stubbornly remain, sending stronger and stronger signals until ... emotion overload.

    But there is another way to understand our emotions, especially our more difficult ones. What if all emotions are a part of a larger feedback system? What If we could learn - and teach others - how to read our emotions, not as good or bad, not as some we want to stay and some we’d like to never have to feel, but as helpful indicators of our state of mind?

    What if emotions were seen as a kind of “check engine light” that we all possess, and that ALL emotions are here to help us? What if all emotions just want to be felt, met with understanding and acceptance?

    And here’s the great secret that emotional intelligence holds: feelings come and go, and the sooner all emotions are met with that understanding, the quicker those more difficult emotions move through us.

    So many people, starting at a very young age, come to think of themselves as filled with problems, and come to see themselves as broken, in part due to their misunderstanding of their very human emotions. Imagine teaching children to befriend their emotions as helpful messengers, reminding them when they get stuck in rumination and fear, and helping them to see how emotions move through them, often without any particular action on their part.

    This is seeing all of emotion as a part of an intelligent design, one that comes from inside of them. Emotional intelligence is usually understood as “we” being intelligent about our emotions. But what if what it really points to is the intelligence of our emotions?

    That shift, from thinking we are intelligent by managing our emotions, to understanding emotions - all emotions - as a form of our intelligence is huge. It moves us from seeing ourselves as problems that need to be solved to humans that need to be understood.

    Think of how this understanding can impact children as they grapple with questions of identity and diagnosis. Think of how this can change the way adults look at children’s emotional outbursts as well as their own.

    We are all made with a built in system of wellness, if we could only understand our minds - and our emotions - from a fresh perspective. Think about it, and see if it makes sense to you. And the next time you see someone in meltdown mode, remind them it’s time to check their engine!

    Gay Collins of Preston is a retired teacher in the Waterford school system who has a master’s degree from Connecticut College. She can be reached at yagspill@gmail.com.

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