Meir was holding onto the book with all of his might. “No, Yehudah, you can’t have it,” he yelled.
“But, it’s my turn, Meir,” Yehudah cried.
The rebbe had told Meir and Yehudah to take turns, but that wasn’t working out so well. Meir always had trouble taking turns – at the water fountain, at baseball practice, and even reading aloud in the classroom. Luckily, reading came easily to him, so even if he had a screaming match with Yehudah, he would probably get his worksheet at least half right.
Meanwhile, in a school several blocks away, Shayna was struggling to fill out her math worksheet. She just couldn’t make the numbers add up. “Excuse me, Mrs. Shapiro?” Shayna said, after raising her hand politely, “I am having a little bit of trouble. Would it be okay if I asked Riva for some help?”
Mrs. Shapiro smiled. Shayna definitely did not have an easy time with schoolwork, but she was so polite and kind that everyone (including Mrs. Shapiro) wanted to do their utmost to help her succeed.
Meir and Shayna are opposites. While Meir lacks social skills, but does well academically, Shayna lacks academic skills, but does well socially. Who is going to do better in school in the long run? Well, the answer is they will probably do just about the same!
Stephen Elliott, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, conducted a survey of over 8,000 teachers with over twenty years of experience in classrooms across the country. He wanted to know what skills students require to succeed in school.
The top ten social skills identified were: listening to others, heeding the rules, ignoring distractions, asking for help, taking turns when talking, getting along with peers, staying calm with others, good sportsmanship, taking responsibility for one’s behavior, and doing nice things for others.
“If we increase social skills, we see commensurate increases in academic learning,” Elliott said. “That doesn’t mean that social skills make you smarter; it means that these skills make you more amenable to learning.”
Of course, this is nothing new within the Jewish world. We know that derech eretz kadma l’Torah. We understand that before children can learn Torah, they must have derech eretz.
So, it shouldn’t surprise you that we need to place as much importance on teaching our children the essential skills of emotional intelligence as we do on more traditional academic skills.
What Comprises Social Skills or Emotional Intelligence?
In the early 1990s, Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, author and columnist for The New York Times, introduced the idea of emotional intelligence or EQ. Unlike the IQ, emotional intelligence is not fixed from birth and individuals can raise their EQ through intervention and education.
But, what exactly is emotional intelligence? In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, Goleman explains:
Abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope… And while there are those who argue that IQ cannot be changed much by experience or education, I will show that the crucial emotional competencies can indeed be learned and improved upon by children – if we bother to teach them.
Researchers point to the following ingredients of emotional intelligence that most enhance and enable learning:
- Self awareness: One of the basic emotional skills involves being able to recognize feelings and put a name on them. It is also important to be aware of the relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions. What thought sparked off that feeling? What feeling was behind that action?
- Managing emotions: Many people continually give themselves negative messages. Recognizing that tendency and reversing it with hope and self-affirmation can be liberating. In addition, finding ways to deal with anger, fear, anxiety and sadness is essential. Learning how to soothe oneself when upset is an invaluable tool. Understanding what happens when emotions get the upper hand and how to regain perspective before reacting are some of the most precious life skills.
- Empathy : Grasping a situation and being able to act appropriately requires understanding others’ feelings and being able to tune into their verbal and non-verbal cues. It involves training oneself to see things from different vantage points and conveying to others that their feelings resonate with you.
- Communicating: What feelings are you communicating to others? Enthusiasm and optimism are contagious as are pessimism and negativity. Being able to express personal concerns without offending or intimidating others is a key asset.
- Cooperation: Helping each other work on common goals involves knowing how and when to take the lead and when to follow. It also calls for understanding that actions and decisions carry consequences and that commitments must be kept. Recognizing the value of others’ contributions and encouraging their participation is of vital importance and often accomplishes far more than hogging power and giving orders.
- Resolving conflicts: In resolving conflicts, one must understand some of the psychological mechanisms at play. People in conflict are generally locked into a self-perpetuating emotional spiral that blows the conflict out of proportion and often obscures the real issue. Much of the resolution of conflicts calls on using the other emotional skills mentioned above.
I have been teaching students how to read English through phonics instruction and coaching children through kriyah workshops for over thirty years. Recently, I turned my focus towards social skills training because of the importance of emotional intelligence in the classroom. To that end, I created a social skills workshop in order to give both educators and parents the tools to get children learning. Without listening skills, there is no math. Without cooperation, there is no reading. So, let’s set a foundation of middos for our children: help them speak kindly, resolve conflicts, and take turns. Once we set that foundation, they can build with their academic blocks.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at email@example.com.
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