Showing their emotions

29th February 2008 at 00:00
In a recent TESS article, Ian Smith stated: "The credibility of teaching emotional intelligence is under question." He was drawing on Carol Craig's critique of the SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) programme, being promoted in England, and the concerns she expresses about the potentially harmful approaches of artificially raising self-esteem in a bid to fulfil one of the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence - "confident individuals".

While sharing many of the concerns and reservations expressed by Ms Craig and others, and while arguing strongly for evidence-led practice, I am concerned that the arguments she deploys against a universal and comprehensive programme of social and emotional learning may be interpreted as implying that all forms of support for young people experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are not of value.

I agree that it is neither feasible nor desirable to transmit emotional intelligence as if it were a package of knowledge and skills to be delivered to passive recipients. However, if we take a broader view of teaching, and the various roles which teachers can adopt in working with young people, a different picture emerges. The role of the teacher has been described in a range of ways: as a facilitator of learning; a joint enquirer; an initiator into a cultural heritage; a "guide on the side"; someone who promotes philosophical enquiry; and someone who models, through their values, beliefs and actions, what it is to be learned. When looked at through this broader lens, it is evident that teachers can promote emotional intelligence.

However, this raises the question: what do we mean by "emotional intelligence"? It is a much contested concept and, while I have reservations about Daniel Goleman's concept of EI, it does not detract from the need for young people to develop as well-adjusted individuals who can understand a range of perspectives, have a sense of responsibility towards others and play a meaningful role in society.

In my job, developing a group-work approach to support pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD), I have found Howard Gardner's concepts of "intra-personal" (understanding of self) and "inter-personal" (understanding of others) intelligences to be of greater value in laying down the foundation for capacities such as empathy.

However, there is another important issue, and that is the means by which emotional intelligenceliteracy is promoted. If it is promoted through an agenda of "you are special", plastic praise, "deferred success", a failure to provide constructive feedback and goals which lack any challenge, it is doomed.

In my work with SEBD youngsters, the goal was to develop their understanding of themselves and others, so they would regulate their behaviour, their capacities to form and maintain good inter-personal relationships, their self-esteem and confidence and their dispositions towards learning. This was achieved through collaborative activities, which was no navel-gazing programme but was designed to help develop an understanding of the perspectives of others - and, for some, to discover for the first time that education and schooling had a purpose.

Whatever the reservations about applying a programme of social and emotional learning to pupils, if they fail to receive the support they need at an early enough stage, the damage to their life chances may be immense and may impact on the whole of society.

Joan Mowat is a lecturer at Strathclyde University and author of 'Using Support Groups to Improve Behaviour'.

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