A child who is able to understand and manage his or her emotions will not only obtain better academic results, but will be better prepared for the labour force, be more successful in life, be happier and will have better physical and mental health.

Through scientifically tested programmes it is possible to teach what is commonly known as life skills – a series of social, emotional and ethical skills that complement and optimise intellectual and cognitive skills.

There are three mistakes that characterise the education children receive today in our more traditional schools:

• A failure to consider two of the most important teachings of neuroscience, namely that reason is useless without the emotions, and secondly, that the brain is very plastic;

• Not addressing the reality that teachers need to deal with what all pupils have in common: emotions (anger, jealousy, joy, gratitude, pride, and so on);

• Placing a hierarchy on subjects, which is a relic from past centuries. In today’s world, it is detrimental to put maths, languages, science and humanities ahead of creative and artistic subjects.

René Diekstra, head of the Social Science Department and Professor of Psychology at the Roosevelt Academy in Middelburg, The Netherlands, says “we are preventing optimal development in children when we deprive them of social and emotional education”.

So in order to correct these errors, it is essential to introduce real emotional and social learning.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, schools dedicated to teach ideologies were substituted by schools dedicated to prepare young people for the labour force. And many schools are today still stuck there.

Most schools today say that their aim is the holistic development of the child, which implies the development of the child in the cognitive, intellectual, social, emotional and ethical aspects.

But in most cases, when we go through the schools’ study plans, the three last aspects are not included formally in the curriculums. In general, there are no formal classes about social, emotional or ethical skills (except perhaps for the ethic values included in religion classes).

These aspects cannot be separated within the child. For example, if children need to do homework they need to have a certain degree of self-control, they need to be able to postpone activities that give them short-term satisfaction, like going out to play.

The ability to postpone short-term satisfaction from small pleasures is not obtained by learning arithmetic, or science, or languages, but by learning basic principles of emotional intelligence.

It is also extremely important for children’s complete and healthy development that they learn how to perceive (detect), recognise and manage their emotions.

For example, if children are afraid of failure, instead of refusing to do their homework or avoiding to go to school, it is important for them to learn to explore their fears and feelings, and to know that feelings are caused by thoughts, which in turn can be modified so that they can succeed in school.

This is the primary lesson taught in schools that integrate emotional and social development in their study plans, such as Waldorf schools.

It is also important to teach the children how to deal with other people’s emotions. For example, quite often, when a child hits another child, it is because he or she is unable to interpret situations and the other child’s emotions (such as facial expressions) and thinks the other child is laughing at them, when in reality they are not.

The consequence of this behaviour can be rejection by the group. When behaviours like this are cultivated over years, they place the child at risk of joining marginal groups (who resort to drugs, and so forth).

Many cases of children with poor social skills can be detected and easily corrected while they are still very young.

Some parents think it is best to teach children to be competitive and to win, and they fear, for example, that if their children are taught to be compassionate with others they will be more vulnerable and less successful. This has been demonstrated to be not true at all, quite the opposite.

For centuries, the emotions were not considered a scientific subject worthy of study, and society frowned on using them to inform decisions. But with the progress of neuroscience in the past few decades, we now know that emotions interfere with reason, and then reason modifies emotions. They cannot be separated.

Through neuroscience we have also discovered the plasticity of our brain: experiences, thoughts and feelings are continuously modifying the connections between our neurons. We can learn and unlearn, and our emotions are moldable.

Emotional intelligence teaches us that our intelligence is emotional, and with adequate practice, we can educate it.

Some of the skills taught in traditional educational systems are obsolete, and this is demonstrated by the failure of many people to succeed in life or achieve happiness. We now know that we need to include the learning of real life skills (understood as social and emotional skills) in our school programmes.

We know now that for every euro invested in this type of programme the return is approximately threefold. It is a very good investment for society; the outcome is fewer conflicts in the classrooms, higher academic performance and a reduction in criminal behaviour.

Children’s social and emotional development is as important as their intellectual and physical development, so besides cognitive and intellectual skills let us all work together to include in our schools’ study plans the teaching of other skills, such as:

• How to detect and manage one’s emotions;

• How to build and maintain relationships;

• How to take responsible and ethical decisions;

• How to put oneself in the place of the other (empathy);

• How to be optimistic;

• How to be happy.

Julián Sáez is a founder member of the Positive Education Foundation in Malta, which is working to promote the School of Positivity Project Malta. If you are interested in promoting this type of education for your children, contact Mr Sáez at contact@schoolofpositivity.com.

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