Why don’t they teach emotional intelligence and self awareness in school? (part 1, K-12)

I write a lot about leadership skills and how to improve your life through understanding how emotions work in general, how yours work in particular, and becoming aware of your emotions as well as everyone else’s.
As a result of focusing on leadership, my community has become full of people with similar interests (you, perhaps?). They all tell me learning and practicing it improves their lives. We prefer having each other in our lives to people who complain all the time or complacently never improve things they could. People complain they don’t like their jobs, relationships, identities, hobbies, and so on, but don’t know they can change them so they dwell in misery.
I haven’t found this stuff too hard to learn, though you have to overcome emotional resistance and practice. I find it incredibly useful, yet no one who mastered it has ever told me they learned any of it in school. And I know plenty of people who have gone to the most expensive and exclusive schools in the world, as well as free neighborhood public schools. For that matter, I’ve only heard of it taught rarely in universities, mainly in business school leadership classes, but today I want to focus on the K-12 we have a right to.
My peers in leadership often ask ourselves why not. Plato and Aristotle examined how to live happier lives (a major part of emotional intelligence and self-awareness) and started much of how and what we teach. How did we come to keep their abstract reasoning and talking about happiness over the practice and realization of it?
I came across one reason — our choices of goals we, through our government, set for our schools and teachers. We call these goals education standards. Here’s an example for second grade geometry (source): “2.G.2. Partition a rectangle into rows and columns of same-size squares and count to find the total number of them.” The “2.G.2” at the beginning suggests the bureaucracy behind these things.
Each state has different standards. I’ll use New York State’s for convenience. New York lists its standards here, in the following categories

  • The Arts
  • Career Development and Occupational Studies
  • English Language Arts (ELA)
  • Health, Physical Education and Family and Consumer Science
  • Languages Other Than English
  • Mathematics, Science and Technology
  • Social Studies

Maybe I’m biased, but I see people trying to improve education focusing on ELA; math, science, and technology; and maybe social studies. I agree on their value, but I don’t see it as obvious where to put leadership skills like

  • managing conflict
  • influence and persuasion
  • negotiation
  • motivating yourself and others
  • perceiving yourself and others

You might think they go under social studies, but they don’t. Here’s what the top-level page puts for standards there — which I’d agree are important for other reasons, but not to develop leadership or personal development skills. You only have to skim it to get the gist.

Standard 1: History of the United States and New York
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States and New York.
Standard 2: World History
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate
their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in world history and examine the broad sweep of history from a variety of perspectives.
Standard 3: Geography
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of the geography of the interdependent world in which we live—local, national, and global—including the distribution of people, places, and environments over the Earth’s surface.
Standard 4: Economics
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of how the United States and other societies develop economic systems and associated institutions to allocate scarce resources, how major decision-making units function in the United States and other national economies, and how an economy solves the scarcity problem through market and nonmarket mechanisms.
Standard 5: Civics, Citizenship, and Government
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of the necessity for establishing governments; the governmental system of the United States and other nations; the United States Constitution; the basic civic values of American constitutional
democracy; and the roles, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship, including avenues of participation.

I don’t see leadership and personal development fitting in the other categories — math, science, language skills, etc — you’d consider important and get most of the funding.
I can only see it fitting, however oddly and ironically, in gym — in New York known as “Health, Physical Education and Family and Consumer Science.”

Standard 1: Personal Health and Fitness
Students will have the necessary knowledge and skills to establish and maintain physical fitness, participate in physical activity, and maintain personal health.
Standard 2: A Safe and Healthy Environment
Students will acquire the knowledge and ability necessary to create and maintain a safe and healthy environment.
Standard 3: Resource Management
Students will understand and be able to manage their personal and community resources.

Note the tantalizing “personal health” in standard 1. Not much to go on, but lower level standards go into more detail. Drilling down to them on this page, you see standards like the following (emphasis mine), amidst many others.

  • understand the relationship between physical activity and individual well being
  • combine and integrate fundamental skills and adjust technique based on feedback, including self-assessment
  • develop and implement a personal fitness plan based on self-assessment and goal setting, understand physiological changes that result from training, and understand the health benefits of regular participation in activity
  • develop leadership, problem solving, cooperation, and team work by participating in group activities
  • establish and maintain a high level of skilled performance, demonstrate mastery of fundamental movement forms and skills that can contribute to daily living tasks, and analyze skill activities
  • follow a program that relates to wellness, including weight control and stress management
  • demonstrate competence in leading and participating in group activities

The terms I bolded suggest a place for personal development in K-12. But now consider three sobering thoughts.

Sobering thought 1

First, what do you remember of your gym teachers and facilities?
My gym teachers were almost exclusively fat, lethargic, and uninterested. Nobody seemed to care about the equipment. If they followed a curriculum, I couldn’t tell.

Sobering thought 2

Second, and perhaps most importantly since this point decides funding, these standards fall under the following “Key idea”

Key Idea: Students will:

  1. perform basic motor and manipulative skills. They will attain competency in a variety of physical activities and proficiency in a few select complex motor and sports activities.
  2. design personal fitness programs to improve cardiorespiratory endurance, flexibility, muscular strength, endurance, and body composition.

This key idea, while well-meaning, focuses exclusively on physical fitness, implying (to me, at least) that everything below it has to fit within it. I suspect it undermines the leadership and personal development aspects of the standards with the bold terms above.

Sobering thought 3

Third, the overwhelming fatness and sedentary lifestyles of people in this country show we’ve failed to meet the main goals of the key idea. If we fail at the key idea — we’re moving backward on it! — why would we expect we’d even address minor points below it?
Even if we taught the points beneath it, why would we expect any of it to get across, through teachers who themselves embody the opposite of the key idea?
Moreover, if we fail the main points, if we ever do try to improve how we meet the standards in “Health, Physical Education and Family and Consumer Science,” we can expect people will focus on the remedial task of improving physical fitness. I agree we should work on that goal, but I expect it will take resources from difficult-to-measure leadership and personal development skills like the ones I listed above.


That’s why nobody has told me they learned leadership or personal development schools in school. It’s also why I don’t expect to see that condition change.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Byron Stock

    First of all thank you for diving into the “educational standards” side of this issue. The examples you shared demonstrate how poorly (vaguely) the “standards” are written and therefore how difficult it is for teachers and students to agree on what is acceptable performance.
    A good learning objective should include three elements:
    – Given(s): A listing of the materials available to complete the action
    – Action: This is the demonstration of what it is you want students to be able to do
    – Criteria: How well the student should perform the action
    For example, lets say we want to teach children to multiply numbers.
    – Given(s): 10 sets of single, double, or triple digit number sets on a piece of paper;
    a pencil with eraser
    – Action: Multiple the numbers in each set
    – Criteria: 10 of the 10 sets will be multiplied correctly in 2 minutes or less
    A learning objective written this way not only makes it clear what the performance and skill level is, it also spells out what students should be practicing doing before the performance test.
    Notice how changing elements in the objective changes what should be taught and practiced for proficiency as shown in the modified example below.
    – Given(s): 10 sets of single to double digit number sets on a piece of paper; an
    electronic calculator
    – Action: Multiple the numbers in each set and state the answers out loud for each
    set as you go
    – Criteria: 10 of the 10 sets will be multiplied correctly in less than 1 minute.
    Notice in the example “standards” listed in the are so vague it is hard to figure out what to teach and what to practice. This makes it difficult to get teachers or school systems to agree on what is to be taught.
    Now lets look at why Emotional Intelligence is not taught in schools. Actually it is being taught in some schools around the US. Over 400 schools are teaching the Institute of HeartMath emotional intelligence skill-building materials to child in K-12.
    First of all there is not agreement about what competencies make up the field of Emotional Intelligence. For example, Daniel Goleman, the author of the best selling book Emotional Intelligence started off in 1995 with his original five EI competencies:
    – Self-Awareness
    – Self-Management
    – Self-Motivation
    – Empathy
    – Managing Relationships
    Now, in conjunction with the Hay Group, he proposes four areas that encompass 12 Emotional Intelligence competencies:
    – Self-Awareness
    – Emotional Self-Awareness
    – Self-Management
    – Achievement Orientation
    – Adaptability
    – Emotional Self-Control
    – Positive Outlook
    – Social Awareness
    – Empathy
    – Organizational Awareness
    – Relationship Management
    – Conflict Management
    – Coach and Mentor
    – Influence
    – Inspirational Leadership
    – Teamwork
    Notice also the difference between self-awareness and Emotional Self-Awareness. If I were to teach people to be more self-aware, that could include a lot of things such as the food I like, parenting skills I use, parenting skills I should use, the kind of people I prefer to work with, what color of clothes I like to wear in the summer, bad habits I have, etc., etc.
    Where as if we focus on teaching people to be better at Emotional Self-Awareness the techniques and content we would teach is much narrower and explicit. So the more focused we are specifically on emotions the more focused the training can be and the more likely will we see an improvement in it.
    Lastly the techniques that are taught in the name of Emotional Intelligence make a big difference. For example one training organization has 56 different “strategies” you could choose from to get better at your EI skills. One strategy is to watch specific movies as a way to improve empathy skills. On the other hand, another training organization teaches 7 simple, specific techniques to improve all five Emotional Intelligence competencies.
    If the bottom line you are looking for is to improve performance, ask training providers to share with you results data of improvements in performance and relationships that occurred as a result of applying what you learned during the training. If they don’t have it, walk away.

    1. Joshua

      Thank you for sharing.
      I’m glad to see people clearly care about teaching these skills. I’m not surprised I stumbled on similar problems they knew about.
      I hope my post, in however small a way, helps get the material into schools. I loved textbook, academic learning. I know I would have benefited from learning some of this stuff earlier though.

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