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Emotional Intelligence

One year there was a boy in my son’s class who was always bugging the other kids. He would break into conversations, touch kids in ways they didn’t like, and generally ignore the usual social conventions that kids follow.
He was also a very large boy, which affects how people view him.
It occurs to me that in another school, with other teachers and in less controlled situations with other kids, this boy could easily have turned into what we call a bully. He was big, physically intrusive, and unable to listen when other kids told him to back off.
In the school his mother chose for him, however, his behavior was looked at from a whole different angle. Instead of saying, This boy is behaving badly, which is the traditional view, and then applying the traditional punishments, the teachers questioned, Why does he act this way? What does he need? They talked to his mother. They had class meetings. When clashes arose between him and other kids, there was always a caring adult there to mediate.
As the year progressed, the other kids came to understand him more. Instead of getting mad at him, they would gently explain what he’d done that was wrong. And because he wasn’t being punished and ostracized for the behavior, he listened to them. By the end of the year, he was integrated into the classroom, and though his behavior still wasn’t completely within the range we call “normal,” he was able to form good relationships with his classmates.
In a traditional school setting, this is the perfect situation to create what we call a “bully.” Here’s a boy who is very large. He doesn’t understand social cues the way that most kids do in the middle of their elementary school years. He’s not a verbally adept child. Other children misunderstand his actions.
In a large, chaotic classroom, the teacher probably doesn’t have time to notice him, except when he’s making trouble. Because she doesn’t have a lot of support, every time a kid complains about his behavior she just sends him to the office for discipline. It’s likely that not one adult takes responsbility for him and tries to figure out what’s at the root of his problems.
On the playground, kids don’t want to play with him, and he doesn’t understand why. With no adults to mediate, their clashes escalate. As the children try to push him further away, he gets more and more intrusive till his behavior starts to fit the definition of bullying.
His teacher might meet with his mother, but his mother’s concerns are dealt with outside of the classroom. The problem is his behavior, the school tells her. What are you going to do about it?
The mother is desperate for help, but no one seems to look at it from her point of view. Here’s a boy that she loves, who is so sweet and loving and really wants to have friends. But the more he is pushed away by the staff and students, the more upset and angry he gets. Because the point of view is punitive — what can we do to discourage the behavior? — instead of therapeutic — what does he need that he’s not getting? — the problems just increase.
Behaviorally different kids have always existed, and do exist in every society. How the society chooses to deal with them greatly influences whether those behaviors set into an anti-social adult, or whether they are channeled into an emotionally healthy adult. By blaming children for their behavior, rather than trying to figure out what the child is expressing with the behavior, we force the child to protect himself in whatever way he can.
The growing field of Emotional Intelligence is trying to figure out what we need to know in order to become emotionally healthy adults. From Wikipedia: One attempt toward a definition was made by Salovey and Mayer (1990) who defined EI as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
Just like with any other pursuit — reading, basketball, knitting, math — some kids seem to come into the world better equipped than other kids to develop the skill of emotional intelligence. We don’t punish kids for having a hard time learning to read – why should we punish them for not getting social cues without being taught?
Of course, what I’m suggesting here is not cheap, it can’t be done on a computer, and its results can’t be boiled down into a score. In other words, it’s education.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.


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