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Change of Hearts : In Many Schools, Teaching Emotional Skills Has Become as Important as the Three Rs


HILLSBOROUGH, Calif. — In another time, another place, 13-year-old Tom Dittmer might have slugged the kid who had been making fun of him behind his back. He still wanted to.

But after nine years at Nueva School here, he knew it would be better to talk about his anger and what might be behind it--a long-simmering resentment against the school's "in-crowd."

Sitting on sunlit wooden steps amid the school's cozy grounds, he analyzed his recent decision, sounding startlingly more mature than his freckles and sneakers might suggest. "I've had difficulty like this before in different situations," Tom said. "The first time you're never quite sure you're going to solve the problem without physical action." But he said he's seen results from choosing more peaceful alternatives. "I see it as a better way," he said. "I think all things can be solved by talking."

A private school for gifted children, Nueva has been teaching emotional and social skills to students with the same zeal as math, science and reading ever since the 1960s. In weekly classes called "self science," first- through eighth-graders are taught how to identify what they and others are feeling, and how to stand up for those feelings while still respecting the rights of others.

In the long run, more than a high IQ is needed for personal and work success, said S. Chevy Martin, the school's associate director. "We're all emotional beings. That's really where people live."

Now, Nueva's self-science program has become a model for a new and growing "emotional literacy movement," said psychologist/journalist Dan Goleman, author of the recently published "Emotional Intelligence" (Bantam Books). Children in every socioeconomic group need this training, said Goleman, citing precipitous declines in the social and emotional skills of a sampling of both privileged and inner-city children over the past 20 years. One nationwide assessment of 2,000 children, 7 to 16, in the late '80s, compared to a similar cross-section a decade earlier, found the subjects had become more depressed, lonely, angry, self-centered, impulsive and less cooperative.

Faced with exploding rates of teen violence and suicide, more educators have become convinced they can no longer afford to ignore their students' social and emotional lives. At the same time, they want something broader than drug or other problem-focused programs, and more meaningful than ditto sheets on self-esteem.

About 1,000 public and private schools, including hundreds in New York City and the entire school district in New Haven, Conn., are experimenting with some form of emotional literacy program, sometimes called conflict resolution or character education, said Mark Greenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. Interest is so high that many schools seeking quick solutions to campus violence have jumped on the bandwagon without looking to see which programs are effective, said Greenberg, who is also a founding member of the Life Skills Collaborative, a Yale University clearinghouse for social and emotional education.

Recent research has shown that the area of the brain that processes emotions basically forms between ages 3 and 10, Greenberg said. But it is not completely formed until adolescence, suggesting that emotional skills should be taught at an early age and that it is possible to continue to sculpt the circuitry that helps children react skillfully to unbidden emotions and impulses, Goleman said.

Nueva's self-science classes teach the basic skills that Goleman contends constitute emotional intelligence: self-awareness, empathy, managing feelings and other communication skills, including assertiveness and negotiating.

As a goal, Goleman cites Aristotle's admonition "to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way. . . ."

But even Aristotle admitted: "This is not easy."


At Nueva, a tree-shrouded private school housed in a converted mansion once owned by the Crocker banking family, each self-science class opens with students taking their emotional temperatures and describing them to the group with a number from 1 to 10, 10 being the most positive.

On a recent Friday, a group of squirming first- and second-graders changed the rules a bit and ranked themselves from 1 to 500, as each in turn tried to one up the last. One was hurt because someone had called her a name, another was proud because he had been picked to lead a line, a third was sad because her parents had gone away on a trip.

Coordinator Janice Toben asked what they might do when someone hurts their feelings. "I'd say, 'Don't call me dumb,' " a girl said, adding sagely: "You shouldn't call anyone dumb unless you have to."

A 6-year-old boy said, "I'd say 'Please don't do that' five times. If they don't stop, I'd say, 'Now you've made me so miserable, I'm going to get a grown-up.' "

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