by Ellen Notbohm
Throughout a child’s education, it’s likely he’ll be tested (and tested and tested) on reading, writing, math and other supposedly measurable gauges of his learning, growth and cognitive intelligence. But it’s also likely that much less emphasis will be placed on his social and emotional intelligence. And EQ, social and emotional intelligence, may be a bigger determinant in a child’s long-term success in life than cognitive intelligence. Many children with autism experience significant deficits in Theory of Mind skills: executive function (time management, planning, ability to focus and attend, memory management), critical thinking (sorting, comparing/contrasting, applying concepts, information and ideas) and social pragmatics (ability to take the perspective of another person, initiate and sustain interactions, problem-solve interpersonal disagreements). Lack of these skills is more likely to get us fired from a job or evicted from an apartment than is an average IQ.
Teaching social and emotional skill should be as much a priority as any academic subject. We begin by defining the components of social-emotional intelligence:
Perspective-taking is the ability to identify feelings in both one’s self and others, understanding and managing the link between our feelings and our words and actions, and experiencing empathy as both the ability to care about another and being able to demonstrate that caring in an appropriate manner.
Forming and sustaining relationships requires understanding the context of different relationships and that all relationships are matters of degree. It includes the skills needed to be able to learn and work as part of a group.
Managing feelings and moods, especially negative ones. This means being able to deal with anger, jealousy, grief, hatred, embarrassment, resentment, boredom or fear proactively, and learning to recognize and control impulsivity.
Opportunities to help children develop social and emotional intelligence are all around, all the time. They come from our own personal experiences and from the events that unfold in our community and the world at large. They abound in the stories and books we read and from movies, TV shows and commercials. It’s never too soon to start teaching social competence, to weave social-emotional awareness into your child’s everyday life in a natural manner that doesn’t come off as preaching or instruction. Start with your own commitment to being a positive role model. Modeling empathy, friendship and anger management through your own behavior gives the child a concrete example to emulate.
Talk about feelings in your daily life. Tell him how you feel; ask him how he feels. Ask him how he thinks others might feel in given situations. Talk about how facial expressions and body language convey feelings, and call attention to these kinds of communication when they occur, both in his daily routine and in television or movies.
Help her build a vocabulary of words describing emotions and feelings so she’s able to not only recognize those feelings in others, but also advocate for herself. When your child tells you she is feeling bad, probe deeper. She’s taken a great first step in self-advocacy, but it is even more helpful if she can tell you that “bad” means confused, angry, hungry, frustrated, physically unwell, sad or anxious.
Acknowledge and reward progress and effort, however small the increment. Tell him, “I like how you let Evan go first,” even if he did it under duress and complained for a full ten minutes without taking a breath.
Offer more than just discussion. Look for graphic materials that promote social competence. These might include computer games, board games, DVDs, books, children’s museum exhibits. Being able to come back to the material again and again, having it be the same each time, and being able to keep it in front of her for as long as she needs to study it—all these components enhance learning immeasurably.
Encourage your child or student to keep a feelings journal. One sentence or drawing a day or a few times a week is enough to start. If he isn’t writing yet, he can dictate to you, talk into a recording device, or even just paste facial expression stickers on a blank calendar. Part of the journal might be a running list of people, places and activities that inspire positive emotions in him. He might also include a list of people, places and activities that provoke negative emotions in him. This list can be a good starting point for a discussion of how to avoid or cope with troubling persons or situations.
Incorporate a focus on giving compliments into everyday life at home or in the classroom. Set up a bulletin board or large jar where classmates or family members can post or deposit compliments. Set time aside each classroom day, dinnertime or other group time to read and applaud.
Many educators and psychologists today advocate an 8-to-1 praise-to-criticize ratio as necessary for encouraging children to change a behavior. Impose an informal praise quota on yourself, and if you find yourself criticizing more than you compliment, try to shift your focus. Actively looking for things about the child to compliment will only increase your awareness of all that is admirable in him, despite his struggles and challenging behaviors.
And finally, remember that the most important tool you can give a child in the long process of learning empathy and self-regulation is strong, stable relationships with the key adults in his life. Children learn and grow by doing. As they learn, the responds to their environment in the context of how it feels to them. We all know from personal experience that emotions sometimes overtake logical thought or action. All the education we layer on a child will not make a difference if the key adults in his life are not there emotionally. The five most important words you can say to him: “I am here for you.” In the midst of all that doing for him, make time for just being with him.
© 2013 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including posting on the Internet.
Award-winning author and mother of sons with ADHD and autism, Ellen Notbohm’s books and articles have informed and delighted millions in more than nineteen languages. Her work has won a Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, ForeWord Book of Year Bronze medal, Honorable Mention and two finalist designations, two Mom’s Choice Gold Awards, Learning magazine’s Teacher’s Choice Award, two iParenting Media awards, and an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist designation. She is a contributor to numerous publications, classrooms, conferences and websites worldwide.
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