Calm Down and Pay Attention: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for Kids

The scene: a first-grade classroom in a Manhattan school. Not just any classroom, this one has lots of Special Ed students, who are very hyperactive. So the room is whirlpool of activity, some a bit frenzied. The teacher tells the kids that they’re going to listen to a CD. The kids quiet down a bit. Then they get pretty still as the CD starts, and a man’s voice tells them to listen to some sounds.

The voice asks them not to say the name of what they hear out loud, but just to themselves. But as they listen to the sounds, they don’t just lie there quietly, like other kids. These hyperactive kids listen with their whole body: when there’s the cry of a bird, they move their arms like a bird. But through it all they manage to calm down and stay focused through the entire six minutes.

The voice on the CD is mine, though the words are those of Linda Lantieri, an old friend and colleague. Linda has pioneered programs in social and emotional learning in the New York City public schools that have been adopted worldwide. Her newest program adds mindfulness for kids to the emotional intelligence tool kit, in one version to enhance focusing and attention, in another to help kids learn to calm themselves better. Linda’s book and CD Building Emotional Intelligence has instructions adapted to kids’ ages – one for five to seven, another eight to eleven, then 12 and up. And she explains how teachers or parents can best introduce these to kids.

Linda’s CD exemplifies the ways we can take advantage of neuroplasticity to help children master the abilities that are crucial for emotional intelligence. As Richard Davidson, founder of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin explained in a conversation we had, the kind of training Linda offers kids strengthens their neural circuitry for self-awareness, self-mastery, and empathy (to hear Davidson’s explanation, listen to the CD Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Skills).

It was gratifying to hear the reactions of Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn to Linda’s program; Jon has pioneered using mindfulness in health care, and with his wife Myla wrote a pioneering book on parenting, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. They visited an elementary school in Manhattan that uses Linda’s program and watched kids go through the exercises. They were pleasantly surprised to see hyperactive kids calm down and listen attentively during the calming and focusing instructions.

In Richard Davidson’s view, this kind of instruction takes advantage of a natural neural window of opportunity during childhood. The neural circuitry that allows us to pay attention, calm ourselves, and attune to others’ feelings all takes shape in the first two decades of life. If we leave that shaping to chance, kids can grow up with a range of deficiencies in these key life skills that can trouble them throughout life, in their relationships and at work. But if we offer them a systematic education in these abilities, they can take these skills with them through life.

Perhaps most important for the mission of schools, learning, when kids learn to pay attention and calm down, they learn better. In some of the Manhattan schools teachers play the CDs for the kids right before tests, to help them get in the best brain state for learning and remembering. Linda has created a great assistant for teachers, a way to help kids be better students – not just learning better, but behaving better, too.

Parents and teachers tell kids countless times to “calm down” or “pay attention.” But the natural course of a child’s development means that the brain’s circuitry for calming and focusing is a work in progress – those neural systems are still growing. They will be shaped by the experiences kids have, so the lessons Linda offers are invaluable. We can help by giving children systematic lessons that will strengthen those budding capacities. That’s what Linda has done in her state-of-the-art curriculum – and what any family of classroom can offer kids now.

7 thoughts on “Calm Down and Pay Attention: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for Kids

  1. EQ is the key to success in life and I am so glad to see that someone is addressing this with children. As a parent I want my kids to grow up and be capable, confident, and mature adults who have mastered all the areas of EQ.

  2. Hi, I just want to thank you Daniel.You benefit a lot of beings, encluding me…Brave and honest, I admire. Lots of love from east small country, Poland. Hope, one day…talk to U
    Beata (team coach)

  3. HI,
    I was wondering if you have read the work of Alfie Kohn?
    there are many issues about education and motivation that he has raised which I believe are based in emotional intellegence. the way that Alfie kohn advocates does involve children working together and seeing their strenght as a group working co-operatively together is one.
    also have you read the open space technology books? as again this is about giving opportunity for people to contribute that is not based around competition.
    one other thing is another method of people gaining insights in terms of their own and others emotional intellegences is the work of Augusto Boal and his techniques such as forum theatre.
    just wondered what your thoughts are about these areas.
    thanks

  4. Hi I am just a student in The Master’s program in Counseling Psychology here at TSU, but I find this topic very interesting and I want to know more about Dr. Goleman as a person and theorist. If you can seen me information about him I would be grateful I am doing a presentation on him in my class on Child Development. I find myself enjoying his views and his use of meditations to enhance your life. I am also on a spritual journey to find my purpose in life. I want to thank you for the chance to email you. Cherry Wesr

  5. Hi, I just want to thank you Daniel.You benefit a lot of beings, encluding me…Brave and honest, I admire. Lots of love from east small country, Poland. Hope, one day…talk to U
    Beata (team coach)

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  6. There are author-psychologist-faculty-therapists like me who have benefitted greatly from your work. With all of your books, you have provided superb “literature reviews” for the lay public, tranlating neuroscience for everyone to understand and use the research on social and emotional competence to enhance relationships. I have used your work and others to co-author a book (www.gettingtocalm.com) for parents about the importance of staying calm in order to relate optimally with teens, who can push emotional buttons in extraordinary ways. Emotional regulation is our next frontier for helping parents be everything they want to be for building loving relationships and healthy competent kids. Thank you!

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