Every day in America, at least one child in 10 is teased, pushed, hit or otherwise tormented at school, according to a recent study by the University of New Mexico and Boston College. The tragedies of bullying are rooted, in part, in a failure to regulate emotions effectively. Teaching children how to manage their emotions and how to create and maintain mutually supportive relationships often is not considered part of the standard school curriculum. But if children cannot handle the many emotions they experience throughout the day—jealousy, anger, excitement, curiosity, loneliness, disappointment, boredom, fear—how can we expect them to concentrate on learning and being kind to others? If children cannot feel empathy for peers who may look, act, or feel differently than them, how can we expect them to critically analyze a character in a text or take other’s needs into consideration? We cannot and we should not.
The argument that teaching children how to recognize and manage their emotions should be part of the standard curriculum of schools is backed by science. A systematic process for building emotion skills and cultivating mutually supportive relationships is the common element among schools that report an increase in academic success, improved quality of relationships between teachers and students, and a decrease in problem behavior. Teaching children to say no – to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to bullying – has little scientific support.
Children need to learn healthy and compassionate options for expressing the range of emotions they experience throughout the day. Adults reprimanding them for misbehavior can be a drastic misfire unless they also provide them with consistent and meaningful opportunities to learn constructive ways to communicate their jealousy, anger, enthusiasm, and adoration. Social and emotional learning refers to a process for incorporating teaching practices, professional development efforts, and curricula so that schools and classrooms become places that support and empower students in their learning and their navigation of the complexities of their social and emotional worlds.Social and emotional learning initiatives provide professional development training that helps teachers learn how to model effective strategies for managing emotional experiences, expressing emotions in socially appropriate ways (even emotions like anger, hostility, and jealousy), and being compassionate towards others.
Some dismiss social and emotional learning initiatives claiming that schools are not a venue for giving students an emotional education, and that emotions have no place in the classroom. Emotions are pervasive in the classroom just as they are in the hallways, on the playground, in the cafeteria, and everywhere else. Students will become kinder towards others when they know how to understand their emotions, to anticipate the effects of their behavior on the emotional lives of others, and to regulate their emotional responses so that they choose compassionate actions not callous ones.
Programming that teaches these skills is possible and it is effective. The RULER Approach is one program that works. In classrooms that use RULER, we have observed students becoming more empathic to others, choosing kind actions instead of cruel ones, and acknowledging their emotions. Students reach out for help when those emotions become too much to endure. Our program fosters in students emotional literacy—the ability to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate emotions. Through its lessons, students have numerous opportunities to practice applying these skills in many different situations so that they understand the significance of emotions and these skills in their lives.
In one classroom, a student named Garrett, wrote a poem about being bullied endlessly by peers. He described his feelings of being taunted by classmates for “being ugly,” “looking like an alien,” and “being stupid.” By the next day, several classmates reached out to him and offered caring words of support and encouragement, as well as their friendship.
In other schools, we have seen students reach out to their teachers when they have been bullied. Instead of enduring significant loneliness and depression, these students expressed their thoughts of suicide to their teachers and asked for help. The teachers attributed this in part to the emotional literacy lessons wherein students were learning how to understand their emotions and identfy effectve strategies for regulating them, and in part to the caring and supportive climate that the program helps to create in the classroom.
Anti-bullying legislation is an obvious but shortsighted solution to the recent tragic events that have made headlines. A more comprehensive solution requires fostering in children emotional literacy. Some educational leaders and lawmakers are acknowledging this. Federal legislation, HB 4223, the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act, is currently with the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Introduced by Congresspersons Kildee (D-MI), Biggert (R-IL), and Ryan (D-OH), this legislation provides the authority to the Department of Education to allocate funds and establish programs to address the social and emotional needs of children. Congressman Ryan said of the legislation, “If we want to push academic performance to the next level, we need to educate the whole child. That means teaching kids how to appropriately handle their emotions and build productive relationships. It’s one of the most significant things we can do to support them.”
Children need safe, supportive, and empowering environments to develop emotional literacy and thrive in school, at home, and in their friendships. Thus, the solution to bullying also requires the provision of comprehensive professional development for educators and school leaders so that they learn how to create those environments and teach emotion skills in the context of academic curricula. Emerging scientific evidence indicates that helping children become emotionally literate is possible and beneficial. It requires support from all the adults involved in the education of children (including teachers, school leaders, and parents), and also evidence-based curriculum and skill-building opportunities from preschool through high school.
The consequences of bullying will continue to make headlines. Telling children and youth to “stop bullying” and to report bullying incidents is not sufficient. We need to teach children how to understand and use the emotions they experience to make healthy decisions for themselves and those in their community.
Susan E. Rivers, PhD
Deputy Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Yale University, Co-Developer of The RULER Approach to Social and Emotional Learning