There's now a fourth R in education: Resilience.’’
It is a hot, dry Tuesday afternoon in a country Victorian classroom. As they do every day, the children of 4D are talking about their feelings.
Nine-year-old Evie Kuchel is feeling confident and enthusiastic. Looking at her ''mood meter'', she gauges she is a 3+ for energy and a 2+ for feelings. On the chart, divided into red, yellow, blue and green quadrants, she plots herself in the yellow. But not every day is like today. If school's been tough or someone's been mean to her, she might find herself in the blue. If she is feeling particularly chilled out, she could be green. Sometimes, it is the opposite.
''On the weekend, I was in the red because my sister was trying to fight with me and I had to stop and go to my room and think about my best self. Then I came out and I said sorry, to be the bigger person, even though she's bigger than me,'' she giggles. ''You've got a right to feel angry, but you shouldn't react to it. You should apply some strategies.’’
When classmate Isabelle Shoebridge feels that sensation in her body – a tingling in the fingers or a twisting in the tummy – that puts her in the red, she has learnt to take a ‘‘meta moment’’ – a short pause of emotional recognition.
Visualising how she would react if she was her ‘‘best self’’ – a collection of words such as patient, kind, caring, sincere and considerate, that she feels describe her at her best – helps her calm down. And then she takes action. ‘‘I just breathe and try to think of a suggestion to get me into the yellow or the green. My main strategies are to drink more water or have something to eat, because I can get angry when I’m hungry.’’
Evie and Isabelle, like their grade 4 classmates at Girton Grammar in Bendigo, are emotionally intelligent children. They are among a new wave of young people with arguably a greater grasp of the full human experience than their own parents. This emotionally literate generation is being explicitly taught to be mindful and resilient – lessons previously learnt, or not, by the hard knocks of life. And their level of self-awareness is extraordinary.
They are able to identify and articulate complex emotions – what it feels like to be ‘‘overwhelmed’’ or ‘‘unacknowledged’’ – and are learning the nuanced differences between assertiveness and aggression, between envy and jealousy, sadness and depression. They understand that everyone has an inner critic and negative thoughts are not facts. Importantly, they know there are no ‘‘wrong’’ emotions. Feeling sad or frustrated or disappointed is normal. But when life knocks them down, they’re learning how to get back up.
‘‘A lot of us grew up in a society where you didn’t talk about your emotions, they weren’t important. I can’t remember someone ever asking me how I felt or if I’d had a good morning and what might have affected my mood on a particular day,’’ says Paul Flanagan, Girton Grammar grade 4 teacher.
‘‘What we’re actually giving these students – the skills, the vocabulary, the social and emotional training – we’re equipping them for when they headout into society. It just setsthem up for a world that attimes can be ruthless.’’
In the past few years, there has been an exponential growth in social and emotional learning in Australian schools. What has been a major educational trend in the US for more than a decade is starting to take off here as emerging research shows aggression, anxiety and stress can be reduced through emotional literacy programs. In part, the push is in response to concern about alarming rates of mental health problems, bullying and youth suicide.
But there is also evidence that children who are in touch with their feelings perform better academically. While once, IQ was seen as the No.1 predictor of life success, many educators now believe EI (emotional intelligence) is equally, if not more, important.
In the business world, government agencies, major banks and companies such as Coca-Cola Amatil, Pfizer and Bupa are among those embracing EI training to boost productivity and retain staff.
While some might label this ‘‘touchy-feely’’ New Age learning, intuitively, a calm, contented, well-supported child is better equipped to learn than one who feels agitated or socially isolated and is unable to express it. Calming exercises – such as deep breathing, a six-second pause, or even laughter – can cause physiological changes in the body that help change mood. Stress hormones dissipate, the heart rate slows and the blood is oxygenated.
There is evidence that practised regularly these exercises cause changes in the brain, boosting traits such as patience, optimism and even empathy.
‘‘As soon as you ask a child to verbalise their emotion, the child accesses the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the part they use for language and to process what’s happening. It takes them out of their amygdala, the lower region of their brain, which is responsible for those strong emotional reactions, and it helps them to calm down because it controls their impulses,’’ says Associate Professor Lea Waters, a psychologist and director of the Masters in School Leadership at the University of Melbourne, who believes emotional literacy should be a cornerstone of teacher training at universities.
Beyond the classroom, there is hope that if children are taught skills such as impulse control, conflict resolution and resilience from an early age, we will ultimately have fewer relationship breakdowns and a more cohesive, compassionate society.
‘‘This is more urgent than for previous generations. We live in a much more fast-paced society; there are more kids coming from broken homes; they’re bombarded with technology and aggressive marketing telling them they have to look and act a certain way in order to be accepted. We need to help them cope with these demands,’’ Professor Waters says.
While not yet formalised in the national curriculum, many schools are offering emotional literacy in their own way. Girton, an independent school, is the first in Australia to use a program designed at Yale University’s Centre for Emotional Intelligence – a world leader in the field.
Principal Matthew Maruff, a passionate proponent who maintains ‘‘emotions are the gatekeepers to the intellect’’, sent three teachers to the US in 2011 to be trained in the RULER program, which teaches how to Recognise, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate feelings. It is now the foundation for every part of school life (staff members also check in with a mood meter daily) and since implementing it, there has been a marked reduction in bullying and behavioural problems, while academic performance has modestly lifted.
In the public system, numerous social and emotional learning programs are being rolled out. The biggest is the federal Department of Health-funded Kids Matter, which started in 2006 and is now being taught in more than 1600 primary schools, with a target of 2000 by June this year. Response Ability and Mind Matters are among the programs being taught in secondary schools.
A Flinders University evaluation of Kids Matter found it not only significantly improved mental health and behavioural problems in schools but also boosted NAPLAN results, showing children who had taken part in the program were up to six months ahead in academic achievement.
While educators and psychologists have offered broad support for the approach, there are some concerns – chiefly that teachers, already overburdened with huge workloads and pressure to deliver academic results – are being asked to become proxy counsellors, taking on a social guidance role that arguably parents should perform.
Supporters argue many parents, who grew up in an era where children should be ‘‘seen and not heard’’, are unable to pass on skills they have never learnt themselves. Indeed, schools that have embraced emotional literacy say home life is often improved as children teach parents how to regulate their feelings. And teachers say that using it in lessons makes classroom management easier.
‘‘We had an incident with a child who was displaying a lot of anger and aggression, but we did some work with them and identified that what they were actually feeling was left out in their peer group. We were able to give them skills to manage those emotions and that child has moved on to be a great success.
‘‘If they didn’t have those skills they could easily have taken the wrong path,’’ Flanagan says.
But while it may work well in a relatively wealthy school such as Girton, how easy is it to apply in more disadvantaged areas where children may have behavioural issues caused by complex social problems? And, while short-term gains are good, is this push for emotional intelligence just another well-meaning fad that will have unintended long-term consequences? The self-esteem movement that burgeoned in the 1980s – focusing on making every child feel ‘‘special’’ – has been blamed for helping create a generation of emotionally fragile narcissists terrified of failure.
At Coolaroo South Primary School in Melbourne’s northern suburbs – a low socio-economic area with a large migrant and refugee population – these concerns appear to be unfounded. It is Wednesday afternoon and grade 1 students are learning about resilience – or, as they know it, bouncing back.
‘‘Do bad feelings last forever?’’ teacher Stephanie Clarke asks the five-year-olds sitting in a circle on the floor.
‘‘Nooooooooooooo,’’ they holler back, grinning. Taking turns to bounce ‘‘Bruce’’ the bouncy ball, they are reminded that: ‘‘We may go all the way to the ground and feel really, really sad, but very shortly we will bounce back.’’
In Jenny Bartlett’s grade 5 classroom, they are discussing body language and how un-tensing can help change your mood and demeanour. The walls are papered with life advice that seems more constructive than the self-esteem movement’s ‘‘just think positive’’ bent. ‘‘Keep things in perspective. It’s only part of your life’’ and, ‘‘Everybody experiences sadness, hurt, failure, rejection and setbacks sometimes, not just you. They are a normal part of life.’’
Since introducing Kids Matter in 2010, principal Karen Nicholls says playground conflicts have dropped, attendance and behavioural issues have improved and children are generally more caring and compassionate.
‘‘We’ve also seen a small but definite improvement in academic performance because the children are engaged in school and they’re happy to come,’’ Nicholls says.
Back in Bartlett’s class, she asks students how they cope with sadness or loneliness. Dilara says playing guitar or singing a song makes her feel better. Raven likes to take deep breaths and relax her shoulders and face. For Erkam, it is about counting to 10: ‘‘Then I say to myself that bad things never last.’’
When the class files out, Bartlett says far from being a burden on her time, she feels these lessons are ‘‘a gift’’. ‘‘Some of these children come from very stressful, heartbreaking backgrounds. They need these skills to survive. What do they do with that anger if they can’t learn to regulate their emotions? We’re making them more aware that they have a choice.’’
Psychologist Andrew Fuller, director of Resilient Youth Australia – a charity promoting young people’s mental health – and one of the architects of the Kids Matter program – believes emotional literacy is the key to a more peaceful community. If more young people learnt to recognise and regulate their feelings, we would see a reduction in violence and binge drinking – problems often fuelled by poor impulse control or a desire to mask anxiety.
Teaching children to read other’s moods – recognising that a terse word or an unpleasant look might mean someone is having a bad day rather than being hostile – may also reduce conflict. ‘‘We did a survey that found 43per cent of kids with low levels of resilience saw violence as an appropriate way of resolving relationship issues,’’ Fuller says. ‘‘So if you have more resilience, the chances that you’re going to slip into a world of violence or risk-taking are much less. Equipping kids with those emotional intelligence skills equips them to have good relationships, which are vastly protective of people’s lives.’’