Preventing Bullying using Emotional Intelligence Training
Every day in America, at least one child in 10 is teased, pushed, hit or otherwise tormented by other kids at school. Over one-quarter of all kids say it has happened to them. Cyberbullying affected 6% of students aged 12-18 in the 2008-2009 school year, with high schoolers at highest risk. Children who are bullied are liable to experience depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues that can last into adulthood. They also do worse in school. So do the bullies themselves, who in addition to their academic and social problems are likelier to abuse substances, commit crimes and become abusers. Some bullied children become bullies, and a few choose deadly means of retaliation; the shooters in 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s had been bullied. Even children who are bystanders are traumatized, experiencing worse mental health, lower school attendance, and more substance abuse.
There are effective and not so effective ways to deal with bullying. Not so effective: Reporting it, telling children and youth to stop doing it, and least of all funneling bullies into the legal system. Anti-bullying legislation may be well-intended, but it’s short-sighted at best and destructive at worst.
There is a better way, and it starts by recognizing why kids bully. Kids bully when they haven’t learned to effectively regulate their emotions, and when they haven’t learned how to create and maintain supportive relationships. They are frequently overwhelmed by feelings like jealousy, anger, excitement, curiosity, loneliness, disappointment, boredom, and fear. And they don’t know how to empathize with peers who look, act, or feel differently. They grow distracted, and they act out, often cruelly.
But they can learn otherwise–if we help them develop their emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate emotions, both one’s own emotions and those of others. It means effective strategies for managing feelings, expressing even negative emotions in appropriate ways, and behaving compassionately. These skills can be taught, just like math or reading.
Teachers can learn how to impart these crucial skills to students through school-wide approaches that simultaneously create supportive and caring climates for learning and focus on emotional skill development. Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence training is appropriate for all ages, from preschoolers to high schoolers.
In schools that teach emotional intelligence, the results speak for themselves. These schools tend to report an increase in academic success, better teacher-student relationships, and a decrease in problem behavior, including bullying. In classrooms that use the emotional intelligence approach RULER, students become more likely to show empathy to others, to choose kind actions instead of cruel ones, and to acknowledge their emotions. These students also ask teachers for help when emotions are overwhelming.
In short, students with emotional intelligence training learn to navigate their complex social and emotional worlds with insight, empathy, and kindness.
One RULER-trained student named Garreth shows what emotional intelligence looks like. He was bullied for “being ugly,” “looking like an alien,” and “being stupid.” Yet, as RULER started to be used in his school, he developed skills that helped him to respond to his bullies with self-confidence and reflectiveness. A RULER lesson helped him develop his voice and communicate his experience in a way that created empathy in his classmates. Watch Garreth read the poem he wrote to share his experience with his classmates. After listening to his poem, several classmates reached out to Garreth to start friendships.
Critics dismiss emotional intelligence and even the general idea of social and emotional learning, saying emotions have no place in the classroom. But like it or not, emotions pervade the classroom, not to mention the hallways, playground, cafeteria, and so on. Since we know how to teach students to handle those emotions, why not do so?
Some lawmakers agree. A federal House bill, the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act of 013 (HR 1875), gives the Department of Education authority to allocate funds and establish programs to address children’s social and emotional needs.
“If we want to push academic performance to the next level, we need to educate the whole child,” said Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH), a cosponsor of the bill. “That means teaching kids how to appropriately handle their emotions and build productive relationships. It’s one of the most significant things we can do to support them.”
Bullying and its consequences will continue to make headlines. Yet children can thrive in school, at home, and in friendships. They need safe, supportive, and empowering environments where they can learn healthy and compassionate ways to express feelings. An education in emotional intelligence works, and every child deserves one.
Susan Rivers, Ph.D. Deputy Director