Steps to Bully-Proof Your Child

Bullying takes the fun out of school. As a child psychologist, I’ve seen the effects on hundreds of kids. One school contacted me last week with concerns over a kid who was drawing pictures of himself jumping off a cliff. He’d been the victim, for years, of being teased for being overweight. Kids who have been teased or bullied feel scared, worried, and embarrassed. It’s hard for them to talk about it, let alone deal with it.

What is Bullying?

Research suggests that almost half of all children have been bullied in some way— by being teased, called names, threatened, hit or kicked, or made to do something they don’t want to do. Bullying is aggressive behavior among school-aged kids that makes another child feel afraid or uncomfortable. Bullying involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Some studies show that 80% of kids have engaged in some form of bullying themselves.

How Common Is It?

Studies suggest that about a fourth of all kids are frequently bullied. Although it starts in the elementary school years, peaks during middle school and decreases in high school, national trends suggest that it is starting much earlier.

Why Kids Bully

There are a lot of reasons why kids bully. Some think it will make them cool or popular by looking tough or in charge. Others do it to get attention or get their own way. Some kids feel powerful when they make others afraid of them. Others are jealous of the person they are bullying. Almost all bullies have been bullied themselves. Even though bullies try to look like they have it all together, they are hurting inside, and need help.

How Does it Hurt?

Bullying can be harmful to your child because it makes them feel lonely, unhappy, frightened and unsafe. They think that there is something wrong with them. It often feels like a kick in the stomach. They often either get sick or simply feel sick. They lose confidence and don’t want to go to school.

Who Gets Targeted

Some kids get picked on for no particular reason, but kids who are likely targets for bullies usually have something different about them, such as their size, the way they talk, or their name. Other kids get picked on just because they look like they won’t stand up for themselves.

  • How You Can Help   If your child is being bullied or teased, first just listen to them and help them to feel understood about what’s going on. Remind them that they are not the problem, – the bully is. It’s not their fault that they are being bullied, and they don’t have to face it on their own. Remind them that everyone has the right to feel safe and respected.
  • Tell Your Child What Not to Do  Explain to your child that there are two extremes of reactions to bullies that definitively won’t One is to act aggressively back, which is just what some bullies want. The other thing to do is be passive and go along with what the bully says.
  • How They Can React  Bullies are also less likely to pick on kids if they are grouped with other friends. It can help to stand up to the bully (or bullies) and say, “Cut it out,” walk away, or tell an adult.

Learning New Tools

An excellent means of learning these skills is download and listen to the award-winning song “Bye, Bye Bully.”  Your child will soon be singing in full chorus:

“Hey you, cut it out. And if you can’t, you’ll be without me

‘Cause I’ll walk away with my head up high and say, by the way, goodbye. Bye, bye bully…

Names will never hurt me, no matter what you say. I’ll tell the teacher that it’s not okay.

I’ll just ignore you, no matter what you say. A bully’s just unhappy, and havin’ a bad day. Poor bully.”

Final Thoughts

These words empower kids to see the problem of bullying as a problem that another child is having instead of personalizing the put-downs. Research shows that hearing this song a number of times can have a profound affect on children’s levels of confidence. It gives them tools to become empowered and show the bully that what they’re doing is not okay. Never underestimate the upset that a bullied child feels.

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Top Tips for Back to School

Now that summer’s almost over, it’s time to close down the lemonade stands and dust off the old backpacks. Twenty percent of American families move to a new home each year, – half of them during the summer. Add to this the number of kids starting school for the first time or who are graduating to their next school, and about a third of all children will be going to a new school.

The only thing constant in life is change. New school or not, this is an excellent time to provide kids with social and emotional tools to do their best in the face of life’s inevitable transitions:

1.  First, ask how your child is feeling. Some parents make the mistake of either filling their child with their own fears, or telling them not to be scared about the first day. First, simply listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings. If they appear or are acting upset, suggest that “Lots of children feel sad or scared. Are you feeling something like that?”

2.  Now reassure. Once the feelings are on the table and normalized, your child can more easily hear your words of encouragement and reassurance that everything’s going to be okay.

3.  Help them view the change as an opportunity. Even though it’s normal to have uncomfortable feelings of anticipation, the butterflies in their tummies can also playfully be viewed as “excitement” instead of just anxiety.

4.  Program positive thinking. As much as possible, scout out the school, teacher or classmates ahead of time so your child can mentally rehearse what things will be like. Have them close their eyes at bedtime and imagine how their experience will be fun and positive.

5.  Re-establish routines. Providing a sense of security gives children a firm foundation for tackling the unknown. Keep things loving and positive, but with a return to the predictable routine. Sleep is essential to reducing fears and irritability. Spend a few days before the first day of school getting your child back on the new sleep schedule. 

6.  Create a ritual of planning. Create a checklist of things to do ahead of time, including purchases, and make it a fun adventure around decision-making. You can also avoid last-minute panic by packing the backpack and laying out the first day’s “special” clothes the night before.

7.  Talk about your own experiences around transitions. It’s helpful for parents to teach by example. Share not only our childhood triumphs, but also times that, even as an adult, you overcame the butterflies and are happy you made a change.

8.  Coach them to reach out. Children often wait for other kids to initiate contact with them rather than making the first move themselves. Encourage them to smile, say “Hi” to those they know, and reach out and introduce themselves to new kids.

9.   Deal with your own feelings. Facing and constructively expressing your own feelings about your child’s transition provides them with a great model for letting go, and also helps to clear some family tension that could otherwise affect them adversely.

10.  Celebrate the day! How about a special healthy breakfast and end of the day celebration for their accomplishment? Give yourself a pat on the back as well!

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Helping Kids with Silly Fears and Negative Thinking

True story: Last week I saw a family from Brazil. The parents shared that their nine-year-old daughter thought she had “worms in her head.” As it turned out, they explained that this is simply an expression in Portuguese that describes a situation where you can’t get rid of bad thoughts. She was worried and couldn’t stop thinking about the safety of relatives back home.

Fear, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Realistic fears help protect us from harmful situations by telling us to avoid them. They keep us from getting hurt.

Lots of people, and especially children, have silly, irrational, unwanted fears that can be just as overwhelming as real fears. Most common for young kids are fears related to the dark, monsters, nightmares, etc. These are the kinds of fears we want to get rid of because they don’t help us in any way, and kids really need our help in doing this.

Since with silly fears there really is nothing to be afraid of, what we are really afraid of is what we are telling ourselves inside our heads. We are afraid of our own thoughts. As FDR once put it- “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Who Gives a Hoot? is a perfect song for this kind of challenge with kids at least 6 years old. (Another Happy Kids Song, Go Away Bad Thoughts is tailor-made for kids ages 3-6.) Use the following procedures:

  1. Play Who Gives a Hoot? a number of times so your child can learn the song, and have them sing or chant along with the chorus (same as the title.)
  1. The next set of steps helps kids learn how powerful their minds are in making them feel either good or bad. First, have them imagine that they are tasting a variety of different foods. Let them describe the quality and flavor of the foods, whether sweet, sour, etc. Then have them imagine tasting something sour or bitter. Help them to see how their thoughts have such a strong influence over how they feel. You might say, “You really have a powerful brain in your head, don’t you?”
  1. Now have your child name one of his/her specific fears. See if they can come up with a silly name for the fear. If not, they can merely call it a “bad thought.” Ask them if it is a thought that will help them to feel good and have a good day, or a bad day, etc.
  1. The next step is to empower your child with the idea that they can be the “boss” of their thoughts and fears. You are teaching them that they have thoughts but can also choose not to have them because they are a “big boy/girl”. Ask them “Who is in charge?” and they will most likely rise to the challenge and say “I am.” If they are familiar with the story about the “Three Little Pigs”, ask them if the little pigs want to let the wolf in when he knocks at the door. Help them to see how their bad thoughts are like that wolf, and that they don’t have to let them in.
  1. Now that the fearful or bad thought is something that seems more concrete and is separate from them, they can do something to get rid of it rather than listen to it and be afraid.
  1. Lots of kids like to take their bad thoughts and fight with them a bit. You can have them imagine that the thought is in a pillow and prod them with the pillow as they assert who the real “boss” is. Have them say, “I don’t like you, bad thought. I’m the boss of you. You get out of my head right now.” (In that fears elevate adrenaline in the blood system and that constructive emotional expression serves to reduce adrenaline, there is a physiological basis for the effectiveness of this method, as well.)
  1. Kids can be initially embarrassed by this pillow hitting procedure, and may need your help at showing them how to do it. Do it along with them. They’ll also tend to giggle a lot, but that’s fine because the laughter serves as yet another release
  1. After a number of trials with the pillow hitting, (for example, a half hour before going to bed at night,) what happens is that the process gets internalized and they’ll learn to tell their thoughts to go away inside their heads rather than having to hit a pillow each time.
  1. Be sure to praise your child for being so strong and becoming the boss of their thoughts.


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Tragic Effects of Bullying When Bystanders Don’t “Stand Up”

Daniel FitzpatrickTime Magazine reported yesterday that yet another victim of bullying has killed himself. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Fitzpatrick of Staten Island, New York committed suicide after making a number of futile attempts to get his school to protect him from constant bullying by classmates. His father wrote “No parent should have to bury their child. No child should have to go through what my son went through.”

Despite efforts to curb bullying in schools, the problem not only persists but is actually on the rise nationwide, particularly in grades six through ten. Schools are faced with the challenge that bullying rarely occurs in front of school personnel.  Rather, it happens outside of class, and now more commonly, on social media.

Hope on the Horizon

One of the world’s most effective anti-bullying programs has been spearheaded by UCLA psychology professor Dr. Jaana Juvonen. Her findings are particularly relevant for kids who are most frequently bullied. These kids, as well as others, can be significantly helped by teaching bystanders to intervene and offer support to kids being bullied.

As a child psychologist, I’ve seen the impact of bullying and teasing on hundreds of kids. One school contacted me this week about a kid who was drawing pictures of himself jumping off a cliff. He’d been the victim, for years, of being teased about his weight. Kids who have been teased or bullied feel scared, worried, and embarrassed. It’s hard for them to talk about it, let alone deal with it.

Learning New Skills

Just released this month, the new rap song “Stand Up,” helps kids understand the valuable, sometimes life-saving, difference that they can make as bystanders. Sympathetic to Daniel’s sacrifice and the pain of countless youngsters impacted by ever-increasing consequences of bullying, I have written, produced and been inspired to offer this song for free here. This anti-bullying anthem empowers kids to stand up for themselves, as well as for others:

Stand Up

“So don’t be a bystander standin’ by

Just look the situation in the eye

Then don’t be pushy but don’t be shy……just stand up.”


“Stand up, and speak your mind.

Go stand up and say ‘It’s never okay to be unkind.’

Enough’s enough. Let’s draw the line.

It’d do a world of good if everybody could stand up for each other. Stand up.”


Final Thoughts

Words like these empower kids to see the bully as the one with the problem instead of taking attacks personally. Adults need to take action to help make schools safe for all kids, integrating recent research into their attempts at change.

Never underestimate the upset that a bullied child feels, or the help that they might need to be bully-proofed. All children suffer—those who are picked on, the bystanders, and the bully who lacks the skills to get along. The right tools can make all the difference.

Posted in Bullies, Bullying, bystanders, Emotional Intelligence, Feelings, Happy Kids, kids songs, Music, Parenting, schools | Leave a comment

Elementary School Musical Showcase

A scruffy old dog stumbles onto the school playground and seems to be deathly ill. Fido’s family can’t afford a vet, so a group of six kids mobilize to get help for him and set off on a wild adventure. One child is in possession of a new (yet to be released) iGadget, another has strong intuitions, while a third gets a message from her grandmother that holds the promise of a hunt for treasure that might pay the vet bill. Can the kids learn enough about getting along, positive thinking, bullying, and conquering fears to succeed? Can they rise above adversity, crack the code of the treasure hunt and pull off the miracle of saving our furry friend?

Forget those re-cycled adaptations of Peter Pan, Music Man and Bye Bye Birdie! Elementary School Musical is theater that is tailor-made for 6th grade performances and includes themes important to today’s kids. Packed with songs, humor, mystery and surprise, the journey on a hot air balloon takes our troupe of actors to a forest, a castle, the depths of the ocean and to the moon and back. A child who has temporarily lost her “wits” re-discovers them. The combined elements of a quiz show, rhythm and dance, audience participation and surprise star appearances from dads are sure to feed the hearts and souls of kids of all ages.



The nine award-winning songs for this musical have been fully recorded and produced to provide a template of mixing options for theater groups, schools and classrooms everywhere. There are options of adding piano, drum or guitar parts, or embellishing the choral singing with tracks provided by the super-star kid singers shown below.

The creative concepts and songs of this musical must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. Please contact Dr. Mac at 805-969-6041.




Dr. Mac

Music director, songwriter and scriptwriter for the PBS animation series, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Don is also a child psychologist and author of books on parenting. His series of over fifty Happy Kids Songs have received high acclaim, winning over a dozen major awards for excellence.

 Judy Stevens Long

Judy Stevens Long is an award winning playwright and holds a Ph.D. in human development. Her works emphasize human development as does her research and teaching. She is professor emeritus at California State University and the Fielding Graduate University.

Mark Young

Mark is an Emmy Award winning producer, director and writer, as well as an experienced executive in charge of both animated and live-action productions.  He has been extensively involved in development and production of a variety of animated, as well as live action specials, and series that include the animated theatrical features, All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 and Once Upon a Forest.

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The Magic of Music

colored_music_note_400_wht_15175Music has an almost magical capacity to touch our souls and elicit strong feelings. For adults, an old tune or two can trigger a walk down memory lane. It can be used for clients needing to grieve the loss of a loved one. For teens in therapy, asking them about their favorite songs and artists can help them feel connected to the therapist, and also elicit a whole host of discussions about their inner lives, hopes and dreams.

Here’s a special treat. If you can tolerate the 30 second commercial, click here to hear CNN’s Sanjay Gupta talk about the magic of music. He describes how music lights up many areas of our brain, including language, hearing and motor control centers,– involving areas of the brain that relate to auditory functioning, planning, memory, movement and attention. Cutting across a number of the “seven intelligences,” music helps to ground concepts in a unique and special way. It can increase the production of endorphins, help us feel energized, lift our moods, and connect us with others. It has been shown to boost creativity, self-expression, and even immune function.

Research has also shown that music can strengthen learning processes, particularly with vocabulary and spatial-temporal reasoning. It has long-lasting effects for retaining information. Many of us still remember the words and meanings of songs we haven’t heard for years, and it’s how we recall our ABCs.

When penicillin was discovered, it was widely publicized and used to treat infection. A different kind of “infection” exists today. Parents and teachers nationwide are overwhelmed with the challenge of young children being rude, irresponsible, teased, bullied, shy or unable to tolerate frustration!

The medicine or solutions for these problems has also been “discovered” but not yet applied…it is the teaching of social and emotional skills.silly_happy_face_400_wht_13432

In the home, parents know the importance of teaching these skills, but complain that they don’t have the tools. In the classroom, the latest research provides solid evidence for the importance of teaching children these skills, yet most schools only support an emphasis on academics. Let’s bring music back into the classroom, light kids up and give them tools for health and happiness!



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Social & Emotional Learning Improves Academics

SDRandCo (17)Glance up to the upper left corner of this page and you’ll see a little orange balloon with some words that say: HAPPY KIDS LEARN BETTER!

It may come as no surprise that this concept is so central a theme to my work and to this website. Happy Kids Songs and activities have been specifically designed for kids hearts and minds!

Nonetheless, I get excited as each and every research project comes to the same conclusion: When children are exposed to consistent and quality social and emotional programs, and even when time is taken away from the academic curricula, academic scores go up. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated this same phenomena.

An article about some latest research on this topic is Social-Emotional Learning Can Support Test-Oriented Academics.

For years, schools have been teaching to the tests. Their funding depends on test scores, so why not spend a lot of time teaching the material to be tested? If you want to drive north you just drive to the north, right?

The answer lies in the fact that kids are not cars, and they also don’t function like little robots or computers. Input doesn’t equal output. They have challenges and overwhelming feelings that at times impede their learning. The emotional brain kicks in and takes over. Their hard drives get co-opted and hoodwinked into the upsets that inevitably occur.file00066095512

Boosting social and emotional skills doesn’t take away the fears, challenges and inevitable changes in life that children face. It just helps them to better cope socially and emotionally, which in turn helps them academically as well. HAPPY KIDS LEARN BETTER!


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Helping Kids Overcome Fears

file5581287624098“Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased by tales, so is the other.”  –Francis Bacon

Young and old, child or adult, fear is one of our constant companions in life, and we should be glad that it is. Our brains are hard-wired to notice signs of danger and to alert us to take protective action. A certain amount of anxiety can actually enhance performance in stressful situations. Certain fears go hand in hand with childhood. Others don’t.

Key #1: Know what is normal given your child’s age.

There are a lot of fears that are part of the normal process of development. Most come and eventually go away on their own as kids get older. For example, babies startle at loud noises and are afraid of large unfamiliar objects. At around six months, your formerly easy-going baby will suddenly be afraid of strangers–which can unfortunately include grandparents if they don’t see them much.

Stranger anxiety often peaks, then will seem to disappear, only to reappear again and again over the course of the next year. file0001186408096Separation anxiety is another normal developmental milestone that can appear suddenly at around eight months.

It is a good sign that your baby is smart enough to realize that his or her survival depends on you, which is why the baby screams like crazy when you try to leave them with a babysitter. Although stressful for parents, babies naturally move through this stage by having the painful experience–and the reassurance of you and other caregiving adults–of how you come and go and come back again.

Practice and repetition is how we learn to confront our fears. Preschool kids, aged 3 to 6, are typically afraid of the dark and often worry about monsters, ghosts or wild animals. They hear noises in the night and want to sleep near or with their parents to feel safe and protected from these imaginary beasts.

As kids get older, they typically develop more realistic fears such as anxiety about being sick or injured, or the fear of their own death or the death of a parent. They also start to get anxieties about school performance or peer relationships. They often develop fears about whatever natural disasters plague your part of the country (such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods) or the current stresses of family or neighborhood (such as threats of poverty, violence, or prejudice).

file000645252166Key #2: The severity of your child’s response will vary depending on that child’s temperament and way of handling new situations.

Temperament is, by definition, the part of a child’s personality that is not caused by good or bad parenting. We now know that infants are born with certain built-in traits that affect their style of interacting with people, places and things throughout their lifetime.

This validates what many parents knew intuitively all along. Not all babies respond the same, and some are inherently more fearful than others.

It is important to know that how quickly and how intensely your child reacts to new people, places and activities and how adaptable your child is in the face of change is a built-in biological factor that neither you nor your child can control. If you have a sensitive baby, you will need to learn to approach new activities and challenges gently, calmly and consistently even more so than other parents.

Key #3: All babies, toddlers, children and teens typically have more fears than adults. They are simply more vulnerable.   

Given the wide range of tasks children must learn to master throughout their childhood, it is no wonder that they typically have more fears and phobias than the adults around them. It is important for parents to make sure that their kids begin to learn, as early as possible, some skills for coping more efficiently with their anxious feelings so that their fear does not begin to interfere with their ability to function. file9541282977224

Children also can develop fears from a traumatic experience such as an automobile accident, the serious illness of a family member, or a confrontation with an aggressive animal. Depending on the child’s age, they may not be able to understand why or how the trauma occurred so the experience just leaves the child feeling scared and vulnerable.

Other kids become fearful for no obvious reason. Some children become fearful simply by watching another child or one of their parent’s acting scared. Sometimes kids’ fears can be traced to something on the news or can emerge after seeing a movie that sparks their anxiety.

Many films today–even those supposedly intended for children–are loaded with images that are aggressive and frightening depending on the child’s age and sensitivity.

file0002043339321Key #4: Some children will go on to develop serious fears and phobias that could get in the way of normal development if untreated.

A small percentage of children (studies estimate 5-10%) will go on to have phobias that will seriously impact their lives causing them not only significant personal distress, but making it difficult for them to remain involved in day-to-day activities of life.

We also know that childhood phobias, left untreated, can predict the presence of phobias in adulthood. If you are worried about a fear or phobia that is getting in the way of your child going to school or eating or sleeping enough, or if the phobia has persisted over time, talk to your pediatrician or get your child assessed by your local clinic or counseling center. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.


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Talk It Out

A new article was published today about research on families and communication. In a nutshell, it emphasizes how helpful it can be for  kids to talk their problems out, and how parents benefit from seeing such interactions.

“When children fight with their siblings, they learn important lessons, such as how to settle, negotiate, and compromise. They begin to see conflict as a problem they can solve…how to see a problem from a sibling’s perspective, how to identify and talk about a wide range of emotions, how to calm themselves when they’re experiencing intense feelings, and how to manage conflicts.”

Kids are helped by communicating feelings in ways that help instead of hurt. It’s just a matter of putting effective techniques into practice. Whether it’s anger, hurt, fear, sadness, or guilt, feelings want to come out. Feelings held inside often result in withdrawal, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole rash of psychosomatic problems such as headaches, tummy aches, and difficulty sleeping. Feelings that are expressed in hurtful ways— put-downs, meltdowns, or acting out—create a whole host of other kinds of problems for kids.

Since sibling relationships are one of the most important templates for how kids get along with peers, we urge parents to teach social skills to kids and encourage healthy sibling relationships. Think of life inside the family as a laboratory for learning how to get along with others.

Both kids and adults alike report greater life satisfaction and fewer physical symptoms on the exact days when they feel more understood by others in verbal interactions. Neuroscientists explain that when people feel heard and understood, their emotional brains settle down in a way that’s almost miraculous… similar to a car on the freeway that ‘s stuck in second gear and then suddenly shifts into fifth… Ahhhhh…

One of the most effective and easy communication tools that we teach parents and kids is called “The Repair Kit.” It provides a path toward understanding, forgiveness, conflict resolution, and bringing out the best in one another. Once acquired, this method can be used as frequently as needed to help things run more smoothly.

The repair kit can be used with kids as young as five or six years old, and kids of all ages learn the benefit of this process by listening to the Happy Kids Song, “Talk It Out.”

You and your partner may need some couple’s tune-ups with this process first. Don’t be embarrassed! That’s often the case, and you can use the exact same model. Thousands of couples have benefited from this practice.

Healthy communication is essential. In happy, loving families, family members take time to check in and talk and listen to one another. They know how to repair hurt feelings instead of withdrawing or becoming hurtful to each other. As hard as connecting can be in the hurried pace of our day-to-day lives, quality communication is more important than ever. It’s best to teach these skills when children are young, leaving plenty of opportunity for practice and use over the course of a lifetime. What a different world we’d live in if everyone learned how to communicate better.






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Teaching Emotional Intelligence

Here’s an excellent article about emotional intelligence that is a favorite of mine. You can either read it here or go to the following link for the original article in the New York Times.

Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?   By JENNIFER KAHN

One day last spring, James Wade sat cross-legged on the carpet and called his kindergarten class to order. Lanky and soft-spoken, Wade has a gentle charisma well suited to his role as a teacher of small children: steady, rather than exuberant. When a child performs a requested task, like closing the door after recess, he will often acknowledge the moment by murmuring, “Thank you, sweet pea,” in a mild Texas drawl.

As the children formed a circle, Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.

Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.

“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.

“And what did you do? What words did you use?”

“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”

Wade nodded slowly, then looked around the room. “What do you think? Does that sound like a good thing to say?” When the kids nodded vigorously, Wade clapped his hands once. “O.K., let’s practice. Play like I’m your mommy.” Scooting into the center of the circle, he gave the boy, Reedhom, a small toy bear to stand in for the iPhone, then began to berate him in a ridiculous booming voice. “Lalalala!” Wade hollered, looming overhead in a goofy parody of parental frustration. “Why are you doing that, Reedhom? Reedhom, why?” In the circle, the other kids rocked back and forth in delight. One or two impulsively begin to crawl in Reedhom’s direction, as if joining a game.

Still slightly teary, Reedhom began to giggle. Abruptly, Wade held up a finger. “Now, we talked about this. What can Reedhom do?” Recollecting himself, Reedhom sat up straight. “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me,” he announced firmly.

“Good,” Wade said. “And maybe your mommy will say: ‘I’m sorry, Reedhom. I had to go somewhere in a hurry, and I got a little mad. I’m sorry.’ ”

Reedhom solemnly accepted the apology — then beamed as he shook Wade’s hand.

Wade’s approach — used schoolwide at Garfield Elementary, in Oakland, Calif. — is part of a strategy known as social-emotional learning, which is based on the idea that emotional skills are crucial to academic performance.

“Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”

Once a small corner of education theory, S.E.L. has gained traction in recent years, driven in part by concerns over school violence, bullying and teen suicide. But while prevention programs tend to focus on a single problem, the goal of social-emotional learning is grander: to instill a deep psychological intelligence that will help children regulate their emotions.

For children, Brackett notes, school is an emotional caldron: a constant stream of academic and social challenges that can generate feelings ranging from loneliness to euphoria. Educators and parents have long assumed that a child’s ability to cope with such stresses is either innate — a matter of temperament — or else acquired “along the way,” in the rough and tumble of ordinary interaction. But in practice, Brackett says, many children never develop those crucial skills. “It’s like saying that a child doesn’t need to study English because she talks with her parents at home,” Brackett told me last spring. “Emotional skills are the same. A teacher might say, ‘Calm down!’ — but how exactly do you calm down when you’re feeling anxious? Where do you learn the skills to manage those feelings?”

A growing number of educators and psychologists now believe that the answer to that question is in school. George Lucas’s Edutopia foundation has lobbied for the teaching of social and emotional skills for the past decade; the State of Illinois passed a bill in 2003 making “social and emotional learning” a part of school curriculums. Thousands of schools now use one of the several dozen programs, including Brackett’s own, that have been approved as “evidence-based” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit. All told, there are now tens of thousands of emotional-literacy programs running in cities nationwide.

The theory that kids need to learn to manage their emotions in order to reach their potential grew out of the research of a pair of psychology professors — John Mayer, at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, at Yale. In the 1980s, Mayer and Salovey became curious about the ways in which emotions communicate information, and why some people seem more able to take advantage of those messages than others. While outlining the set of skills that defined this “emotional intelligence,” Salovey realized that it might be even more influential than he had originally suspected, affecting everything from problem solving to job satisfaction: “It was like, this is predictive!”

In the years since, a number of studies have supported this view. So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier.

This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.”

Should social-emotional learning prove successful, in other words, it could generate a string of benefits that far exceeds a mere bump in test scores. This prospect has led to some giddiness among researchers. Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, has lauded emotional literacy as “the missing piece” in American education.

But finding ways to measure emotional awareness — never mind its effects — is tricky. It’s also still unclear whether S.E.L. programs create the kind of deep and lasting change they aspire to. The history of education reform is rife with failures: promising programs that succeed in studies, only to falter in the real world. The phenomenon is so common that researchers even have a name for it: the Hawthorne effect — the fact that simply focusing attention on something, like a school, is enough to cause a temporary uptick in performance.

The problem of evaluating S.E.L. is compounded both by the variety of “prosocial” programs on offer and by the ways in which they end up being used in the classroom. Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate “kits” with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. ” ‘Mindful eating’ is social-emotional learning, according to some people,” Brackett told me. “It’s a mess. Everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon.”

David Caruso, a psychologist who does consulting and training in emotional intelligence, has called the current boom in social-emotional programs “promising,” but he worries that the field might be getting ahead of itself. “There are people who want to write this into the Common Core right now,” Caruso told me. “But before we institutionalize this, we’d better be sure that it makes a difference in the long run.”

Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school in a low-income part of Sacramento, has few problems with gangs or guns but a long history of dysfunction. Until recently, the staff attrition rate was more than 20 percent a year, and student test scores were regularly among the lowest in the state. Before the current principal, Billy Aydlett, was hired in 2010, there were six separate principals in five years.

Not long after he arrived, Aydlett created a detailed plan to boost the school’s academic performance. He recruited a roster of highly regarded teachers and developed an aggressive new curriculum full of rich and invigorating lessons. Once the school year started, however, it became clear that the new strategy was a bust. “Literally within the first month of school, we realized that we hadn’t planned for the right thing,” Aydlett recalled when I visited the school last spring. “What we discovered was that these kids weren’t going to be able to make progress on the academics until they’d gotten help with their social and emotional issues.”

With the district’s support, Aydlett attended social-emotional learning training. The program was an unlikely choice for Aydlett — a socially awkward man who confesses to being “awful” at ordinary human encounters. But since beginning the emotional-literacy work, Aydlett said, he had become more aware of interpersonal dynamics, and even made going on a vacation with his wife a priority — something he never bothered to do before. (“I didn’t see the point in that kind of connectedness,” he admitted. “But I’ve learned that it’s important.”) On the morning I visited, he stood greeting children at the gate with high-fives, then led me to the classroom of Jennifer Garcia, who teaches second grade.

As Aydlett and I watched, Garcia walked her class through an exercise in nonverbal cues, asking the children to imagine times when they felt sad or angry or frustrated, and then to freeze in those expressions and postures. As the kids slumped forward in exaggerated positions of woe, Garcia complimented them on small details: a bowed head or hangdog expression. Afterward, Garcia turned to the class. “This is the thinking part of your brain,” she said, holding up her thumb. She pointed to her fingers. “And this is the feeling part of your brain.” Folding her thumb into the center of her palm, she closed her fingers around it. “When we have strong emotions, the thinking part of our brain can’t always control them,” Garcia explained, waggling her fist. “What do we do in those moments?” As the kids called out answers — counting to five, “self-talk,” “dragon breaths” (a kind of deep-breathing exercise) — Garcia nodded.

Such strategies may seem simplistic, but researchers say they can have a profound effect. When I spoke with Mark Greenberg, who developed a social-emotional curriculum known as Paths (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), he noted that repeatedly practicing these skills means they gradually become automatic. “The ability to stop and calm down is foundational in those moments.”

The value of such skills was evident later that day, when I sat in on a fourth-grade class meeting, in which students worked through interpersonal conflicts as a group. Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.

Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.” It’s a valuable skill, coloring how we interpret events and handle their emotional content. Does a casual remark from an acquaintance get cataloged as a criticism and obsessed over? Or is it reconsidered and dismissed as unintentional?

Depending on our personalities, and how we’re raised, the ability to reframe may or may not come easily. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that while one child may stay rattled by an event for days or weeks, another child may rebound within hours. (Neurotic people tend to recover more slowly.) In theory, at least, social-emotional training can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences. One study found that preschoolers who had even a single year of a social-emotional learning program continued to perform better two years after they left the program; they weren’t as physically aggressive, and they internalized less anxiety and stress than children who hadn’t participated in the program.

It may also make children smarter. Davidson notes that because social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex, it can also enhance academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory. Though it’s not clear how significant this effect is, a 2011 meta-analysis found that K-12 students who received social-emotional instruction scored an average of 11 percentile points higher on standardized achievement tests. A similar study found a nearly 20 percent decrease in violent or delinquent behavior.

When I spoke with teachers at Leataata Floyd, they reported seeing similar results. One teacher remembered the pre-S.E.L. school as being out of control, with kids throwing food and angrily upending their desks in class. Now, she says, “they may still blow up, but they take responsibility. That’s a new thing: they always used to blame somebody else. For them to take responsibility — it’s huge.”

Starting in the late 19th century, the philosopher John Dewey argued against the development of purely vocational elementary schools, insisting that the true purpose of schooling was not simply to teach children a trade but to train them in deeper habits of mind, including “plasticity” (the ability to take in new information and be changed by it) and interdependence (the ability to work with others).

Social-emotional learning takes Dewey’s theory further, suggesting that all emotions — not just the right ones — are adaptive if properly managed. Studies have shown that people in a slightly sad mood are better at analyzing or editing a written document (they focus better on details), while people who are slightly angry are better able to discriminate between weak and strong arguments. The purpose of a social-emotional learning program, then, isn’t to elide emotion but to channel it: to surf the rapids rather than to be swamped by them. This can be hard to do. When we feel angry, we usually act angry — even when that makes the situation worse. The nature of emotion is that it tends to run away with us. “When a feeling is unpleasant, how are you going to handle it?” asks Stephanie Jones, a Harvard psychologist who has studied a number of social-emotional learning programs. “Do you default to an angry response, a defensive response? Or do you go into a mode that’s more information-seeking?”

Social-emotional learning programs often rely on strategies from conventional therapy, like the ability to get distance on a feeling, or to unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within it. But fostering these skills in a child is a complex undertaking. For a child to master empathy, Jones notes, she first needs to understand her own emotions: to develop a sense of what sadness, anger or disappointment feels like — its intensity and duration, its causes. That awareness is what lays the groundwork for the next step: the ability to intuit how another person might be feeling about a situation based on how you would feel in a similar circumstance.

When it comes to making social-emotional learning effective, Jones says, determining which skills can constructively be taught at what ages is “a critically important question.” So far, however, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L., and even fewer have included the kind of rigorous, controlled trials needed to prove that acquiring a specific skill produces a specific outcome over the long term. “If skills aren’t nurtured in an ongoing way,” Jones says, “it may be that those skills are lost.”

Even a handful of poorly designed programs, Caruso notes, could cause educators who are just warming up to the idea of a social-emotional curriculum to dismiss the entire field. Critics already charge that social-emotional programs are a kind of “therapy light” and a waste of valuable classroom time. In 2010, a report from the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated seven different S.E.L. programs found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems. S.E.L. supporters criticized the study’s methodology and pointed out that the researchers couldn’t be sure that the comparison schools weren’t using S.E.L. techniques even if they weren’t using a formal program. Still, to show that S.E.L. is effective, Caruso says, programs will have to be tested the same way a new pharmaceutical is: through a randomized trial that could distinguish short-term placebo effects from lasting improvements. Without such evidence, social-emotional learning could go the way of the self-esteem movement, an ill-fated program from the 1980s in which schoolchildren repeated mantras like “I am special” and “I am beautiful.” At the time, it, too, was considered the height of progressive education. The program was largely abandoned after it ended up being connected to rising rates of narcissism.

“It’s a big messy field, with a lot of promises, but very little data,” Caruso says of S.E.L. “Right now I think people are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”

One of social-emotional learning’s “stickiest” programs is Second Step, the plug-and-play curriculum that provides teachers with grade-appropriate emotional-skills lessons. Originally developed as a violence-prevention program in 1986, Second Step is currently used by approximately 25,000 schools in the U.S. and Canada, according to Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, the nonprofit behind the program.

At Ella Flagg Young School in Chicago, I sat in on a sixth-grade Second Step class taught by Latasha Little-Brown, the dedicated “social-emotional learning coordinator” who has worked at the school for nine years. That day, Little-Brown began by playing a Second Step video featuring good friends, Lydia and Maria. In the story, Maria’s aunt gives her a cool new necklace, which has beads made of paper. Lydia loves it, so Maria lets her borrow it. But as Lydia is walking back from the party, it suddenly starts to rain and the necklace is ruined. Lydia doesn’t know what to do.

In the teachers’ edition of the exercise, the goal is for students to write out the steps of an apology, including reparation. (Step 1: “Maria, I was wrong for taking the necklace and not caring for it properly.” Step 2: Offer to pay for the necklace.) Little-Brown nudged the students in this direction, until one boy — a chubby kid who had kept his jacket and backpack on during the entire class — finally raised his hand in frustration. Lydia hadn’t been negligent, he pointed out: she’d just been walking home and got soaked by a thunderstorm. How was the loss of the necklace her fault?

Lawyering ensued. One girl insisted that Lydia could have put the necklace in her pocket, or balled it up in her hand — leading another student to argue that just clutching the necklace in a downpour wouldn’t have protected it. Meanwhile, Backpack Boy was still trying to parse the details of friendly obligation. If someone dumped a bucket of water on you as you walked by, he wanted to know, would that be your fault? What if someone robbed you or threatened you with a gun?

Brackett’s approach may strike some as overkill, but a growing number of social-emotional learning programs now offer separate training for teachers. “It’s like that old airplane maxim,” Mark Greenberg told me. “Put your own mask on before you put your child’s on. You have to help yourself first.” Greenberg notes that a great teacher can change how students learn and behave, creating a climate that is engaged, caring and respectful. In theory, S.E.L. training could help more teachers develop those skills. “The one constant in education research has been the power of these great teachers,” Greenberg said. “What has been less clear is how you bottle that.”

Located high in the hills a few miles north of Berkeley, Prospect Sierra, a private elementary school, is also a Ruler school. It’s a cheerful place filled with the subtle accessories of wealth: airy classrooms outfitted with iMacs and a sprawling sports field with an unobstructed view of the San Francisco Bay.

Walking the halls one day last spring, I spied posters for empathy (“I say what I am feeling, and listen empathetically to what the other person is saying”), with examples of various mood meters, including one made by first graders that struck me as both impressive and alarming. Alongside “energetic,” “peaceful,” and “curious,” the meter listed “frantic,” “lonely,” “depressed,” “excluded” and “joyless.”

In the afternoon, I joined a P.E. class to watch a capture-the-flag-style game, in which teams tried to retrieve colored banners without being tagged. The teacher, a lean, blond woman named Jacqueline Byrne Bressan, began by having students sit in a circle to discuss problems that came up in the last game and how they could be prevented this time around. One boy, whose silky brown hair gave him the look of a miniature British soccer star, raised his hand to note that “some people” hadn’t been willing to “roshambo” — do “rock, paper, scissors” — the school’s accepted practice for settling disputes over whether a player had been tagged or not. When Bressan asked what he did about that, the boy sat up. “I told them they weren’t playing fair,” he said solemnly. “And then I let it go.”

Not long after this discussion, I watched as a beefy blond kid in a red shirt and white Nikes was patently tagged by a small brown-haired girl, but kept running. “You’re tagged!” the girl yelled. Another boy echoed her: “You’re tagged!” The boy yelled back, “No, I’m not!” Glancing at Bressan, he slowed briefly to a walk — then moved furtively around the edge of the field and sneaked back into the game.

Watching this, Bressan smiled dryly. The beefy boy, she observed, is “one of the kids who really struggles” with basic social-emotional concepts like fairness and accountability. But she also said she felt that he was gradually improving. “It used to be, he wouldn’t roshambo at all,” she said. “Or he’d lie and say that he did. Now it may take a minute, but he usually does it.”

While it was hard to tell if roshambo was teaching deeper lessons of fairness and problem-solving, Bressan told me that it radically cut the number of arguments she had to resolve, and also made it easy to identify the kids who needed more help socially. She also said that it gave the other students the moral authority to hold another player accountable.

There seemed to be something to this. While the game had its share of elementary-school drama (at one point, a girl started to cry after a boy bragged that he was faster than her “by a million miles”), it was noticeable how quickly most kids moved on. A tiny blond girl who was in tears over being pushed — her new white jeans now had a grass stain on the knee — handled the matter by walking once around the field, then talking about it in the postgame debriefing. “We talked about not tagging too hard during the game, but it was still happening,” she said, sounding surprisingly sanguine.

When I mentioned this to Bressan, she nodded. “I think it makes a difference sometimes for them just to be able to say it,” she said. “Just to have it discussed.”

Talking later, Bressan told me that in her last job, at an inner-city school in New York, students behaved differently; when one kid was punched in the stomach during recess, she recalled, he didn’t even go to the teacher. By comparison, it was hard to know how the kids at Prospect Sierra might fare in the “real world.” But she added, “The real question is: What kind of world do we want?”

That question is one that Marc Brackett thinks about often. He envisions a generation of kids who have grown up immersed in an environment of total emotional awareness — who receive new insights at the developmentally appropriate times, and in deliberately constructive ways.

“If you have that kind of instruction, from kindergarten,” he said, “I think that in 20 years the world will be a very different place.”

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