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Mastering emotions, mastering life

Yale researcher makes case for social, emotional learning

When Marc Brackett talks about the negative effects emotions can have on our abilities to complete even basic tasks, he sometimes mentions his mother.

In a 2011 TED talk he gave in San Francisco, Brackett – a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University – shared a story about taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission to graduate school.

Brackett spoke of growing up in New Jersey (he earned his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University). But shortly before he was scheduled to take the GREs, his mother died.

He was, as you can well imagine, emotionally distraught. And, unfortunately, he had nowhere to turn for help.

“For some reason, there wasn’t any adult in my environment that said, ‘Hey, take a break,’ ” he explained. Nobody was willing to offer him “strategies” on how to manage his emotions or to suggest he wait a year to let himself recover from such a “terrible loss.”

The result? “I remember sitting in that room being incapable, not capable, of taking the test,” Brackett told the TED audience. He found himself “just looking at paragraphs, being delirious and saying to myself, ‘I just can’t take this test right now.’ ”

Recalling the experience years later over the phone, Brackett remembers the anguish he went through. Time passing has softened the memories a bit, though. Even when asked specifically how well he did, he’s now able to find some humor in the experience.

“On that particular occasion, I did horrifically,” Brackett says. “Embarrassingly low scores. And I don’t attribute it to my brilliance.”

He pauses slightly, then adds, “That’s a joke.”

But his initial failure, he adds, wasn’t due to a lack of brilliance either.

“It truly was stress and anxiety that interfered with my ability to concentrate and attempt to focus,” he says.

No doubt.

Brackett would later retake the test, do well enough to get into graduate school and, once there at the University of New Hampshire, do well enough to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. Now, these many years later, he is not only a senior research scientist at Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development & Social Policy, he’s director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He’s won numerous awards and written more than 100 scholarly papers.

Spokane to host October summit

He will be a keynote speaker at the Young Child Expo & Conference, to be held in Spokane Sept. 30-Oct. 2. It is presented by the Gonzaga University School of Education and Los Niños Services. Brackett will deliver his keynote speech, titled “Emotional Intelligence: Our Best Hope for Safe, Caring, and Effective Schools,” at 1 p.m. on Oct. 1.

He was initially listed in the conference program as the leader of an all-day workshop on Sept. 30 titled “Emotional Intelligence for Educators: A Skill-based, Sustainable Approach,” but schedule conflicts forced a change. One of his Yale Center colleagues, Miriam Miller, will lead the workshop instead.

You may recognize Brackett’s name from his connections with the Emotion Revolution, the online survey of high-school age kids that will culminate in a national “summit” to be held Oct. 24 at Yale University.

The Emotion Revolution evolved out of a partnership between Brackett’s Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Born This Way Foundation, founded by performing artist Lady Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) and her mother Cynthia Germanotta. The Yale summit will feature appearances by Lady Gaga, Germanotta and Yale University President Peter Salovey.

Some 250 kids, some pre-selected but others chosen from those across the country who completed the Emotion Revolution survey, will attend the summit in person.

Brackett and his team will engage summit attendees, plus a slate of educators, in activities designed to get everyone involved, he says, to envision “what’s needed to close the gap between how they perceive their schools to be currently and how they want their schools to be.”

“The question,” Brackett says, “is what do they believe is necessary in order for schools to be more engaging? What needs to happen? What would it look like?”

Those are questions Brackett himself wishes someone would have been asking when he was growing up. In his TED talk, Bracket admitted that he “had good parents,” but added that “they didn’t know about emotions or about emotion management.”

Over the phone, he explained that it was the negative incidents in his own childhood, at home and at school, that led him to the field of study that has become his career.

“The No. 1 influence was just my own dissatisfaction with my school experience,” he says. “I was a kid who was bored always in school and also had some pretty challenging bullying incidences. Just the fact that I was not engaged as a learner but also the fact that I was tormented for a number of years in school.”

Again, no one was there to help or to provide support.

“There was no awareness that it was happening in the environment, at least that I perceived, because no one did anything about it,” Brackett says. “And I guess … people didn’t feel that it was important to intervene.”

It’s important here to distinguish between the typical conflicts that growing into maturity pose and the feeling that, while facing such conflicts, you are powerless.

“Conflict is normal for development,” Brackett says. “You’re gonna not get along, you’re going to fight. That’s probably fine. But when someone has power over you in a situation, that’s when the dynamic changes. So when you’re powerless, when it’s not an equal battle, things change.

“That’s what the challenge is,” he says. “The victim is in a position of lesser power, and because of that he – or she – has to take what is given as a result.”

You can make the change

In the nature-versus-nurture argument, it’s important to point out that some people – either through good genetics or because they enjoy a supportive childhood – are able to survive even the worst experiences growing up. But not everyone is that fortunate.

“My point behind my work is that there’s no guarantee you have great genetics,” Brackett says. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be nurtured in an environment where you get taught these skills. What I argue is that why not make sure that every child gets a formal education on emotion? Why not integrate it from kindergarten to high school? Or better off, from womb to tomb.”

In his TED talk, Brackett elaborated on what the research at the Yale Center is uncovering. “Emotions matter,” he said, for four primary reasons:

1. “They affect your attention and learning.”

2. “We know emotions affect our decision making.”

3. “We know that emotions drive our relationships. Our facial expressions … dictate how people respond to us.”

4. They affect mental and emotional health.

“The work that I do,” Brackett said, “is not only thinking about how emotions impact these things but really what do we do with these emotions?”

Which leads to what he calls Emotional Literacy and to the “five critical skills” that comprise the RULER Approach designed, he said, “to help us regulate our emotional lives.” Those skills, as outlined by the acronym, are:

• Recognizing: Recognizing emotions in self and others. What is the reason for any particular emotional state?

• Understanding: Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions. “What caused that emotional state,” he said, “and what are the consequences of that state?”

• Labeling: Labeling emotions accurately. “What are the words we use on a regular basis to describe our emotions,” he said, “and how sophisticated is our emotional vocabulary?”

• Expressing: Expressing emotions appropriately.

• Regulating: Regulating emotions effectively. These, Brackett explained, are “the strategies we use to manage emotions.”

And if you wonder how well all this works, Brackett reported that his lab’s research indicates students who possess these skills have higher quality relationships, are less anxious and depressed and, no surprise, tend to perform better in school.

But don’t just take his word for it. Other sources are echoing Brackett.

According to a recent New York Times article, “Thousands of schools now use one of the several dozen programs, including Brackett’s own, that have been approved as ‘evidence-based’ by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

“All told,” the Times reported, “there are now tens of thousands of emotional-literacy programs running in cities nationwide.”

Over the phone, Brackett says the sad truth is that “some people become victims of the circumstance.” But, he adds, “Some people know how to turn it around. But you need resources.”

That necessary support can come from anywhere: family, friends, a friendly teacher. But for many who struggle, those resources aren’t present – and the results can be disastrous.

“It’s always better to get it from the ones you live with and are closest with,” Brackett says. “Whichever way, we need someone on whom we can rely, with whom we can talk about difficult situations. If that’s not there, life has a different trajectory.”

He’s hopeful that, through the work he does – and that Lady Gaga and others do to keep the conversation going – a time will come when such resources will be plentiful and readily available.

That hope has Brackett “tremendously excited.”

“The level of interest in this work has grown exponentially over the last five years of my work in the area,” he says. “How it will pan out might be another story, but I do see a future where schools will be integrating social and emotional learning in a more serious way.”

Spokane to host groundbreaking Young Child Expo and Conference

When a group of experts on childhood gather in Spokane for the three-day Young Child Expo & Conference, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, it will be a unique experience both for Inland Northwest childhood professionals and parents.

Nancy Evangelista, the conference’s New York-based coordinator, says a forthcoming conference in New York (scheduled for April) will be that city’s 13th such event.

But this is Spokane’s first-ever conference.

The event’s overall purpose, Evangelista says, is to provide professionals and parents who attend with the latest information about early childhood development, services, resources and products to help all children reach their full potential.

“In one unique event,” she says, “this conference integrates learning about a wide variety of important topics affecting typically developing children as well as those with special needs, including autism.”

Among the conference’s keynote speakers are a number of noted authorities: Dr. Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Thomas M. Caffrey, an internationally recognized expert on autism; and Melanie Potock, co-author of “Raising A Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook – A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating.”

Miriam Miller of the Yale Center, Caffrey and Potock will lead all-day workshops. Overall, more than 50 speakers will address a range of childhood issues over the conference’s three days.

Brackett delivered the keynote speech at the 2011 New York conference, and he conducted full-day workshops in 2012 and 2013. “We like his approach with emotional intelligence,” Evangelista says, “and attendees respond to his talk very well.”

Brackett’s Yale Center is partnering with performing artist Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to sponsor the Emotion Revolution, an online survey of high-school age kids that includes an Oct. 24 meeting at Yale University. Brackett’s keynote speech in Spokane is titled “Emotional Intelligence: Our Best Hope for Safe, Caring, and Effective Schools.”

Evangelista is enthused that Washington State has become an active area for early adoption of social and emotional learning.

“I think it’s great and needed as it helps children in their social emotional development,” she said. “The earlier the better.”

For more information on the Young Child Expo & Conference, visit www.youngchildexpo.com Early-bird registration rates are available until Friday, Sept. 11.


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