'Emotional literacy' for kids key to better school results

Many teachers and parents should learn better emotional and social skills in order to help children boost their school or university performance, according to a top research scientist from the United States.

Dr Marc A. Brackett, Deputy Director of Yale University’s Health, Emotion, and Behaviour Laboratory, is in Australia to present a keynote address to the Australian Psychological Society’s College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists national conference, to be held at the University of Melbourne (Hawthorn campus) on November 26.

Speaking ahead of the conference Dr Brackett said that programs to help combat social problems in schools, such as underperformance, anxiety and bullying, were becoming more common but the most lasting results – and the greatest improvement in academic results – occurred only when family members and adults working with children also improved their emotional skills.

Dr Brackett has devised a program called RULER (therulerapproach.org), which sets out five skills that helps children and adults to better manage their emotions. Since its creation eight years ago, his team has helped children and adults develop the skills of Recognising, Understanding, Labelling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. RULER has now been adopted by hundreds of schools in the US.

Educational institutions have introduced the program to improve the social environment and reduce problem behaviour. Research into the emotional literacy program suggests that, in comparison to schools in which such programs do not exist, those students armed with the RULER program had 17 per cent fewer problems such as learning and attention difficulties.

Even more striking, they recorded 19 per cent better study, social and leadership skills, and 11 per cent better marks.

Dr Brackett said: “Most schools invite us in because they want students to be better at regulating their emotions, but you can’t succeed at one aspect of this without developing the other RULER skills.”

 “These programs are often seen as an add-on, but in fact they must be fully integrated into every aspect of the day. To be effective, teachers, school leaders and even parents or other family members need to make sure they are living these principles,” he said.

Dr Brackett, who also is the head of the Emotional Intelligence Unit at Yale University, is a prolific researcher who has investigated issues ranging from the effect of teachers’ mood on the way they mark schoolwork to the benefits of emotional literacy in the workplace.

The concept of emotional intelligence was popularised with the publication of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman but Dr Brackett favours the term “emotional literacy”.

He explains:  “Emotional intelligence is an ability, whereas emotional literacy is an achievement. A person may have a temperament, perhaps genetically acquired,  which means they are prone to experience more negative emotion in life but learning these social and emotional skills will help them to manage it. No person is born knowing that ‘reframing’ a negative experience can help them to feel better about it. But it is a skill they can be taught.” 

In Australia, social and emotional education has been pioneered by the Federal Government-funded KidsMatter Primary program, which has been piloted in more than 100 schools since 2006. The Australian Psychological Society is a development partner in the initiative, on which Professor Lyn Littlefield, Executive Director, will give a keynote address at the conference.

Professor Andrew Martin, of the University of Sydney, will also speak on motivation and engagement and local psychologists will present research papers on the effectiveness of whole-school anti-bullying policies and the heightened prevalence of autism among hearing-impaired children.

For a range of psychological resources for adults and children, go to The Australian Psychological Society or Kids Matter.


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The APS is the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 19,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to peoples’ lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.