EI and basic needs

Q: Is emotional intelligence possible when basic needs like food, clothing and shelter are not met ? Can I hope to teach SEL skills to people/children who don’t get two square meals to eat in a day, let alone nurture and care…? And how?

A: When children don’t have their basic needs met for food, clothing, and shelter, of course those needs are the first priority. I’d add another one by the way – safety.  And far, far too many children in the world lack some or all of these needs.  On the other hand, the capacity to meet life’s challenges well is a resource every child deserves, too – and perhaps most of all those children who have the hardest lives.

SEL teaches these life skills – self-mastery and social skill – which in themselves can help children as they navigate through life. And while SEL is mainly associated with school-based programs, remember that throughout human history these same skill sets have been passed from generation to generation in the midst of life, not in a pre-packaged format.  Just as the best SEL programs are woven into the culture of a school, the same lessons can be imparted as part of the everyday interactions between any adult and a child.

Take the keystone of self-regulation, delaying acting on impulse.  This skill in itself has been found to be a stronger predictor of health and financial status in adulthood than are a child’s IQ or the wealth of her parents. Lengthening the gap between impulse and action is a lesson learned anytime a child puts off for the future something he wants right now – even if that future is just a few seconds, minutes, or after getting some task done.  Such “SEL” lessons do not have to be part of a school lesson – they can be imparted on the spot whenever the opportunity arises.  For more examples, I strongly recommend “The Whole-Brain Child,” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, which will be published later this year.

In cultures around the world where one class or group has been privileged and another oppressed, there tends to be an IQ advantage to the privileged of about a standard deviation – an advantage that disappears in a generation if that oppressed group migrates to a country where they have equal advantages, nutrition, etc. As it happens, the recent meta-analysis of SEL programs (involving 270,000 children in total) found that they increased academic achievement scores by 11%. That almost wipes out the cognitive advantage of kids in a privileged class.

I remember being approached by a banker in India with a philanthropic bent. He wanted to explore offering SEL in schools for Dalits, the “untouchable” caste that even now tends to be at the lower rungs of the economy – and which suffered systematic oppression for centuries. His idea made sense to me as one more way to level the playing field in life for these children. And, in general, any way you can help disadvantaged children learn to enhance their emotional intelligence skills will, in the long run, help them have better lives.