Set aside time to help kids develop emotional intelligence

Educators playing bingo with children at a kindergarden.
Educators playing bingo with children at a kindergarden. ST PHOTO: FILE

I was taught to be smart in school. I just wish I had been taught to cope better

Question 1: Cheryl is asking a bunch of guys to guess her birthday. She is the prettiest and most popular girl in class. While the boys try to figure out the date, they ignore you when you hand out your own birthday party invites.

How does that make you feel? What are some of the ways in which you can cope with that feeling? What would you say to these friends to articulate these feelings in a calm and non-accusatory tone?

You may answer in writing, audio recording or live dramatisation. All responses are automatically awarded full marks.

Question 2: What do you like to do for fun? Make a list of activities that cheer you up when you are feeling down. Give yourself a gold star each time you remember to do something from the list when you are in a bad mood. Nobody has to know how many gold stars you have, and there is no minimum or maximum you need to get.

Question 3: You didn't make it into the junior college or university you had your heart set on, and now you feel like you are a failure and/or your parents are saying what a disappointment you are.


ST ILLUSTRATION

Call it emotional intelligence or social-emotional learning, or any number of scientific or new-age terms, but this concept, to me, is about recognising that we are all built differently, with different personalities and temperament.

What are the negative thoughts that pop into your head? What are the positive ones that you can reframe them into? How do you move on from this setback and tell yourself that you will find an opportunity - even if it is not exactly the same opportunity - to do better?

There is no time limit to this question, and you may consult as many good friends, trusted adults and books as you like.

As a child, I was an exam junkie. I looked forward to final-semester assessments, which meant that I could "show off" by regurgitating what I had learnt over the school year, and then sit back to lap up the approval from my parents, teachers and classmates.

It was positively Pavlovian: Get good grades, bask in praise, desire to get good grades. And so it went.

I loved this cycle so much that I have returned to school once - completing a master's degree in literature ("for fun and self-gratification", whenever anyone asked me why) - and tried to do so again, applying (unsuccessfully) to do a PhD last year.

Like a lab rat, injected with higher and higher levels of adrenaline-boosting drugs, I had become acclimatised to stress, buying wholesale into the idea that moderate levels of it was good for enhancing performance. I was always running to stay in the same spot, ears pricked for that dinner bell, slobbering at the cage door, to get my kibble of outside validation.

While I had long suspected this, it was not until recently that it hit me fully that in my thirst for book knowledge, in my emphasis on doing well and making something of myself to show the world, I have absolutely no idea how to regulate my own emotions.

A former boyfriend once described me as "a ticking time bomb". At home, I lost my temper over small things, and obsessed about minor defects. Some days, my neuroses kept me in bed, robbing me of energy to do anything.

Then, a few months ago, I decided that I couldn't cope on my own any more. I was sick of wondering what was wrong with me, and started seeking professional help.

I had imagined that I would just lie back on a psychiatrist's couch and lay my trivial, self-absorbed problems at his feet.

Instead, I have discovered that what I've been missing all along are a certain set of specific and essential skills on how to deal with what makes me, well, me.

Call it emotional intelligence or social-emotional learning, or any number of scientific or new-age terms, but this concept, to me, is about recognising that we are all built differently, with different personalities and temperament.

And instead of beating ourselves up over the traits hardwired into us or our perceived shortcomings, we could figure out methods and processes to best enable us to circumvent destructive impulses or modify negative behaviour, so as to function better in society.

Schools in Singapore are among the first to offer social-emotional learning as part of their programmes, which I find greatly comforting.

Already, I can see its effect on my two sons, aged nine and five.

They are more secure, now, more in touch with their feelings, than I am, as an adult.

In my idler moments, I wonder if my life would have turned out very different, or been much improved, if schools in my time had imparted such skills, too.

What if, instead of answering only questions on calculus, osmosis and the Majapahit Empire, my education had included non-threatening exam questions such as those listed at the start of this piece, in which every student's answer was celebrated for its independent thought and diversity, and which displayed an interest and concern about the person I was developing into?

While emotional intelligence is something that should be taught and reinforced at home, there are cases in which parents themselves - no matter how well-educated or high-flying in their careers - may be passing on anxiety-inducing vibes to their kids.

Having adequate curriculum time set aside in schools, from kindergarten to university, for social-emotional learning would ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn these life skills.

This would be one way in which the Ministry of Education could achieve its recently reiterated goal of creating opportunities across the education system for every child to succeed.

With many job candidates flaunting academic excellence in their resumes, being able to deal with setbacks and other inconvenient problems of corporate life have become increasingly important in standing out in a sea of potential employees.

But future employability benefits should not be the main reason for parents and teachers to equip young minds with good tools to make sense of their social and emotional needs.

Perhaps it is obvious, but it hadn't always been to me: Being happy with yourself is a huge part of being successful.

I hope never to short-change my own children by putting their intellectual development before their emotional ones.

Tuition for social-emotional learning, anyone? I approve.

•Clara Chow is a freelance journalist, writer and co-editor of art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'Set aside time to help kids develop emotional intelligence'. Print Edition | Subscribe