Do you ever look at the children in your care and wonder what the future holds for them? Do you think that one will have a good life, while worrying that another will have problems? Do you wonder if you are making a difference in their lives?
The Impact of Teachers
Researchers have studied children at risk for negative outcomes and found that, although some did not reach their potential, others grew up to have rewarding, successful lives. What made the difference was the presence of “supports” or protective factors that offset the negative effects of the risk factors they experienced. After studying children over time, researchers also found that protective factors have “a more profound” impact on individual lives than “specific risk factors or stressful life events” (Benard, p. 8). Individuals who are successful in overcoming risks are said to have “resilience.”
Many protective factors are external to the child, meaning that caregivers and others can make a profound difference in an individual’s life. “Nurture” matters. On the other hand, the “nature” of the individual child is also important. Emmy Werner points out that “every study that has looked at resilience in children over time found “clusters of certain qualities, including being active, alert, affectionate, easygoing, reaching out to others… Resilience in each individual is complex – nature and nurture are interwoven, and resilience is not an absolute” (Neimark, 2003, p. 25).
The Role “Intelligence” Plays
One way to understand individual differences is to think of those differences as the product of different forms of “intelligence.” In his groundbreaking work on multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner (1993; Colbert, 1997) identified two forms of intelligence that relate to how people cope with situations:
• Interpersonal intelligence – understanding others and acting on that understanding; and
• Intrapersonal intelligence – the ability to know how we feel and have insights into why we act as we do.
Gardner’s ideas have been picked up and explored by others, including Daniel Goleman, whose 1995 book popularized the term “emotional intelligence” and led schools to offer programs in “social and emotional learning” or SEL. Ten years later, Goleman (2005) reported that, “scientifically,” a case can be made that “helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their disturbing emotions and impulses, and increase their empathy pays off not just in improved behavior but in measurable academic achievement” (p. xi).
In the 1960s, for example, researchers at Stanford University used marshmallows to test the theory that children who were able to control their impulses at a very young age would experience better outcomes in later years than those with less self-regulation. They told four-year-olds that they could have one marshmallow immediately, but two marshmallows if they waited while their researcher went away on an “errand” (about 15 or 20 minutes). In follow-up studies, the children who waited had better outcomes, including higher scores on their SAT tests. They were able to restrain their impulses and analyze the situation, think about the alternatives, and choose the most advantageous course (Goleman, pp. 80-82).
Building Resilience in Children
Aside from participating in a scientific study, how do we know who has emotional intelligence? One way is to note that Gardner (1993) defines intelligence in its general sense as the ability to “solve problems” or “create products” that are valued within one or more cultural settings. Taking that definition as a starting point, and observing the children in your care. What you see as you watch them solving problems and making things in day-to-day situations may help you identify which ones have the kind of social emotional skills that signal emotional intelligence and translate into protective factors that promote positive outcomes in later life.
Even more important, you may also begin to see how you can make a difference in their lives by providing them with opportunities to improve their social and emotional skills and build resilience. Here are some suggestions:
Interactions – Help children increase their social competence by interacting positively with others:
• When a child does not appear to have the social skills to get along well with others in a large group, organize a play situation that involves just two or three children to give the child practice relating to others.
• Help children learn to share by creating situations where the children will have to take turns using certain materials, such as the blue crayon, red truck, or construction scissors.
Activities – Plan activities that are appropriate to the age and abilities of children, but also provide them with opportunities to make decisions and solve problems:
• Allow children to choose their activities and take responsibility for their choices and their behavior. Choosing gives them a measure of control over their lives and a feeling of autonomy or independence. It also shows them that choices have consequences. They may make a positive choice and enjoy the activity, or a negative one, in which case they will have to learn to cope with the results.
• When a choice doesn’t work out, help the child deal with the resulting frustration and disappointment. When a child behaves badly, don’t say “Bad boy,” or “Bad girl.” Instead, focus on behavior. When focusing on behavior, emphasize the positive. Instead of “Don’t kick,” say “Please, keep your feet on the ground.”
• When planning activities for a group, allow for varying levels of ability. What may be relatively easy for one child, may pose a frustrating problem for another. When an activity frustrates a child, work with that child. Break the activity into smaller, simpler segments so that the child can experience success. Provide positive feedback when the child succeeds. When the group is ready, challenge the children with tasks that are more difficult and allow them to practice solving problems, including the problems posed by their own emotional responses.
• Encourage children to take ownership of specific achievements and feel proud of what they have accomplished. Help them understand their achievements by praising specific aspects of what they have done. Don’t simply say, “Good job!” Say, “I like your red fire engine.” Instead of saying, “I’m proud of you,” say “You should be proud of yourself.”
Modeling – Use a variety of strategies to give children examples of emotional intelligence in action:
• Adult Behavior – Make sure that you model the kind of behavior and problem-solving skills you would like them to acquire. For example, when you make a mistake, admit it and then point to the possibility of improving in the future. “Oops, I spilled the water. I will mop it up and try to be more careful next time.”
• Role-Playing – Use dolls and puppets to act out situations to which children can relate and to show characters modeling positive behavior. You can have two puppets bumping into each other, with the more aggressive one saying, “I’m sorry,” and asking if the other is hurt.
• Stories – Read stories involving characters who have successfully solved problems and related well to others; show children how social and emotional skills can be used in daily life. Encourage the children to tell you how the stories relate to their own experience. For example, if you choose to read about the time Franklin had to confess and take responsibility for forgetting to water Mr. Mole’s garden, ask the children if they have ever forgotten to do something and what happened as a result. Consider how Clifford fails at several tries to get a job and then succeeds as a police dog. The Little Engine That Could shows that size, glamour and strength are less important than compassion and the will to keep trying. Generations have been inspired by the little engine that kept saying, “I think I can, I think I can.”
• Songs – Remember the power of music and songs to tell stories. Children have long known and loved the Eensy Weensy Spider that crawled up the water spout, was washed down, and went right back up. Think about current entertainers, such as Charlotte Diamond, who has written songs about accepting life as it is and overcoming disappointment. “My Bear Gruff” describes loved friends who are “not extra special, but special enough.” In “The Whistling Paperboy,” the music does not stop when a much loved paperboy leaves because he is replaced by a “Whistling Paper Girl”!
When you give children skills and strategies for controlling their emotions, solving problems and relating to others in positive ways, you give them tools that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
Judith Colbert, Ph.D., is a consultant who specializes in early care and education. She focuses on various topics, including multiple intelligence, and is the author a major study on the relationship between brain research and curriculum.
Benard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What we have learned. San Francisco: WestEd. Sample chapters available at www.wested.org.
Colbert, J. (1997). Brain research can influence early childhood curriculum. Early Childhood News, 9(5), 14-23.
Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Basic Books.
Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Bantam Books.
Neimark, J. (2003). Conspiracy of good: Renowned resilience researcher Emmy Werner embodies and uncovers the traits that traumatized children call on to create a fulfilling future. Science & Spirit, (January-February), pp. 19-25.
Bridwell, N. (1965). Clifford gets a job. New York: Scholastic, Inc. [ISBN 0-590-33555-3].
Diamond, C. (1992). My bear gruff. [Audio tape]. Vancouver: Hug Bug Records. [Available: Hug Bug Records, Box 58067, Station “L,” Vancouver, BC Canada V6P 6E5]
Jennings, S.. (2000). Franklin forgets. Toronto, Canada: Kids Can Press. Ltd.
Piper, Watty. Adapted by Walter Retan. Illustrated by Mateu. (1986). The easy-to-read-little engine that could. New York: Platt & Munk. [ISBN 0-448-19078-8].