Preventing bullying with emotional intelligence

Teaching kids how to be emotionally intelligent can prevent behaviour such as bullying. Shutterstock

In school, emotions matter. Not only do children with anxiety and aggression have difficulty focusing and learning, they also tend to be victims or perpetrators of bullying. Whether it’s old-fashioned physical or verbal aggression, ostracism, or online abuse, bullying is deeply rooted in a lack of emotional intelligence skills. These skills can and should be taught, though they seldom are.

What kids need is a curriculum in emotional intelligence skills. These include the ability to recognise emotions in the self and in others; understand the causes of emotions and their consequences for thinking and behaviour; label emotions with a sophisticated vocabulary; express emotions in socially appropriate ways; and regulate emotions effectively. Emotionally intelligent people of all ages recognise a healthy range of emotions in themselves and others - insight that helps them to form stable, supportive relationships and enjoy greater well-being and academic or job performance.

Emotional intelligence protects people from depression, anxiety, and aggression, and equips them to face bullying by managing their own fear and reaching out for help. By contrast, a lack of emotional intelligence predicts aggression, substance abuse, and worse mental health.

Teaching emotional intelligence, while quite feasible, isn’t as simple as adding a subject to the schedule. On the contrary, a successful emotional curriculum takes a whole-school approach. It begins by educating teachers, administrators, and parents, for many of whom these skills will be new. Only after that are the concepts introduced to students.

In the United States, some 500 schools have introduced an evidence-based program called RULER, designed to teach the skills for recognising, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions.

RULER uses four anchors of emotional intelligence upon which a flexible emotional intelligence curriculum is built. Students and teachers write collaborative Charters detailing the behaviours they expect from one another. They learn to locate feelings on a Mood Meter and gain a rich vocabulary to describe those feelings. They are taught to take a Meta-Moment - a short pause - before reacting to provocation. And they devise a Blueprint to address problem behaviours that do arise.

The results of RULER training are strikingly positive. In RULER schools, focus and classroom climate improves. Students and teachers form better relationships, and teachers suffer less burnout. Children are less anxious and depressed and do better academically, as well as showing greater social skills and fewer behavioural problems. Suspensions can fall by as much as 60%. And bullying decreases.

In the US, a federal bill is under consideration that would support adding social-emotional learning to teacher-training programs.

A system-wide, evidence-based education in emotional intelligence is every bit as important as an education in traditional subjects. By contrast, failing to offer children these crucial skills creates a fertile environment for bullying. Australia’s children deserve an emotional education, one that gives them every chance to become more effective learners and happier, more self-aware and more compassionate human beings.

That’s what Victoria’s Girton Grammar School in Bendigo did in 2011. It sent teachers to the US to be trained in RULER, subsequently becoming the country’s first to adopt the program.

Melbourne’s King David School and a handful of other Victorian and NSW schools have adopted the program as well. KidsMatter Primary is a Department of Health-funded social and emotional learning program built on similar principles; the schools it has reached include those in disadvantaged areas, such as Coolaroo South Primary School in northern Victoria - places where, arguably, children may benefit even further from an understanding of emotion.

Bullying is a major problem in Australia. The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence study found that over one in four children in Years 4 to 9 reported being bullied at least every few weeks, with hurtful teasing and lies the most common behaviours. In 2008, a tenth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children between the ages of 4 and 14 reported being bullied in school about their Indigenous origins.

Bullying victims suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and suicidal thoughts. They also do worse academically. Perpetrators suffer, too, experiencing more depression, anxiety, hostility, and substance abuse. Even children who are bystanders may be traumatised. Worst off are bully-victims - kids who are both bullying victims and bullies in their own right. As adults, this group often goes on to criminal behaviour and partner abuse.

The United States has made many well-meaning attempts to legislate bullying out of existence, introducing measures like zero-tolerance policies, close monitoring, and awareness assemblies. But bullying rates haven’t dropped. Such law-and-order approaches can even backfire when children taught to stand up to bullies face retaliation.

The programs fail because get-tough strategies neglect to address the reasons children bully: namely, a lack of emotional understanding and an inability to self-regulate powerful emotions. Children who don’t know what to do with emotions like frustration, fear, or isolation may turn to bullying for emotional release. If we teach our children to be emotionally intelligent, they’ll learn how to recognise these emotions and transform them into something more positive.