Using Your Head and Your Heart

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Using Your Head and Your Heart

Foster your child's emotional intelligence to help him succeed
in school and in life.

You've heard the term "emotional intelligence" mentioned as a new and better way to predict and measure children's success. To best understand this concept, we need to backtrack and think about what it seeks to replace. Consider the term "IQ," short for "intelligence quotient."

boy going to schoolIn the earliest tests designed to measure the hypothetical concept of intelligence, an average was arbitrarily set at 100. Each child's score was expressed in years and months, then divided by his actual age. A child who scored higher than 100 was said to be likely to do better than average work in school. What matters most about this little tidbit of history is our recognizing that IQ is not a given, not a thing; rather, it is a method put forth to try to predict how children are likely to do in school.

Not surprisingly, IQ tests worked pretty well at predicting academic success, since most of the test questions were connected to school-related knowledge and skills. And the behavioral expectations, such as sitting still, focusing on and answering questions when the child might prefer to be playing, were similar to the school's behavioral expectations. But experts have been arguing for a century about what they are really measuring with these tests. They know that IQ is an invented idea. In fact, many warn us to accept a statement such as "His IQ is 115" with a great deal of caution.

Nevertheless, we seem to have become less and less cautious about predicting children's future success or failure from just such limited measures. These predictions may not only be wrong—they may create inaccurate expectations for children and their parents. Worse yet, they may become self-fulfilling prophecies, in which children with lower test scores get the message that they are expected to fail, and so they do.

A New Model

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman is understandably alarmed about all of this. So in an effort to put the matter in proper perspective, Dr. Goleman offers a new concept not only for predicting school success, but future life success. What is more, this new way of thinking about ability allows hope that something can be done to improve the odds of both school and life success. Here is the way it works, as described in Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.

children playing togetherDr. Goleman suggests that a number of ingredients add up to good "emotional intelligence," including:

  • self-control or impulse control
  • the ability to motivate one's self
  • persistence
  • optimism
  • self-understanding (knowing one's emotions)
  • empathy (sensing others' feelings)
  • the art of listening to others (and really hearing them)

Intellectual ability is not enough to assure success in school or in life. In fact, in some cases, children with superior cognitive skills do not live up to their promise because they do not also possess solid emotional intelligence. They are out of synch with themselves and with others; they can't read between social and emotional lines. They are not good at cooperating or at preventing and resolving conflicts.

A Job for Schools and Parents

girl helping her friend with schoolworkDaniel Goleman and many more of us look forward to the day when schools will help children learn these skills and values, along with the ability to persist in the face of frustration, delay gratification, regulate their moods and experience empathy. He says it has been a mistake to focus solely on academics, ignoring these essential social-emotional skills. He even goes so far as to say that feelings are not impediments to rational decision-making; in fact, they are indispensable for making good personal and occupational decisions.

The bottom line is that educators and parents can't afford to overlook children's insight and people skills. We should be guiding them (empathetically!) to use their heads and their hearts every day. Even if your child's innate temperament does not automatically lend itself to persistence, optimism, delayed gratification for goals, and empathy, you can guide her in that direction.

  • Start early. Ideally, all this begins very early in life with the family. When you are emotionally attuned to your young child, you provide a model for empathy while also giving her a wonderful sense of feeling understood and valued.

  • Be understanding, but set limits. It's impractical and unwise to routinely defer to all of your child's wishes. What's more important is communicating an understanding and respect for his feelings. Harsh discipline and/or indifference to your little one's feelings can have a negative effect on the development of his emotional intelligence.

  • Be a role model. Your child learns a great deal from watching the way you handle your feelings and your interactions with others.

  • Cheer her on. Babies and young children who enjoy a large dose of approval and encouragement from important adults are most likely to expect to succeed, and therefore endure the rough spots of life with more grace and optimism. As your child grows, act as her emotional coach. When she is upset, disappointed, etc., take her feelings seriously. Try to understand what is causing the upset and help her find good ways to soothe herself. Guide her toward problem-solving—appropriate alternatives to fighting or withdrawing.

  • Scout his talent. A vital ingredient in all of this is getting to know and understand not only your child's temperament, but also his passions. In fact, Goleman suggests that the single most important contribution that teachers and parents can make to a child's development is helping him toward whatever field best suits his talents and interests. Helping him find and cultivate his natural gifts is an invaluable contribution, as is encouraging curiosity and the pleasure of learning.

  • Help her make and keep friends. Gently, never critically, guide your child in her interactions with peers. Teach her how to handle stress, manage her own feelings and consider what others may be feeling.

In a few schools across the country, there are actually "emotional literacy" classes. Even more helpful, though, may be imbuing every interpersonal situation with such lessons. Try to turn crisis moments into lessons in emotional intelligence. Ideally, each learning experience will allow your child a small reach—not too far and not so easy that it is boring. If you can help him find the "just right" challenges in learning and encourage his emotional astuteness, academic achievement and later life success is very likely to follow.

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About the Author

Written by Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D.
Scholastic's Parent & Child Magazine

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents.