Don't feel like a number

Schools today must play by numbers: they’re forced to quantify learning through such measures as standardized tests, grades, and pass rates, or risk losing funding or being placed on watch lists. But most educators know this: important learning can happen at a social or emotional level, harder to quantify or measure today but more deeply planted in the adults our children are in the process of becoming tomorrow.

Still, in the current educational climate, where testing and benchmarks are held up as minor deities, some parents, never mind their kids, are left behind.

“I see it every day, parents feeling unsure of themselves,” says Paulette Zoë, principal of Lake Country School and mother of Harrison, a St. Louis Park High School junior. “It’s really interesting. There is a lot of talk in schools about all the measurement stuff and how that is impacting how parents see what schools do and how parents see what their children need to do. And a lot of unanswered questions.”

Testing itself isn’t the problem, says Zoë: “There is nothing wrong with measuring things.” Her concern is when the process of learning, that is, learning how to learn by choosing a subject of interest and pursuing it by researching, discussing, observing, collaborating — and yes, sometimes procrastinating, forgetting, and even failing — is co-opted by a system that demands a narrow definition of success by numbers.

Many school systems, not just the Montessori school Zoë heads, do emphasize what Zoë calls the whole child and others call emotional intelligence, a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman, alongside academic results. Schools that foster social and emotional learning (SEL) may include opportunities for collaboration, practicing communication skills, leadership development, and teamwork. SEL may become especially important at the early adolescent developmental stage, Zoë says, when young teens need to nurture the range of emotions and find constructive ways to handle their feelings.

But academic pressure can ratchet up in the middle- and high-school years as college applications or adult responsibilities loom. Parents and families can anticipate their teens’ needs, fostering emotional intelligence and life skills in many ways. For example:

Offer choices. “It might just be between A and B,” Zoe says. Allow your child to choose her own afterschool activities, or whether to take a writing class or a science class, to join the choir or go out for volleyball.

Foster collaboration.
Team sports; band, choir, or orchestra; math team or debate club; scouting; or volunteering for a cause are all great ways to help your teen see himself as having a meaningful role in something larger than his Facebook profile.

Help connect the dots. In junior high and high school, students are ideally open to many areas of study and career paths but may need help to find natural motivation. Parents can help students to see how studying hard or getting good grades can help them to find their natural motivation to achieve a larger goal, as opposed to the grade being the end in itself, explains Zoë. “I don’t think we stop and take the time to explain that to kids. That is part of apathy or competition around grades. Learning in a vacuum detaches you from the whole experience.”

Give kids practice. “Kids need a lot of practice,” says Zoe. “Learning doesn’t all happen in books, in school.” Provide opportunities to interact with a variety of people through volunteering, babysitting, and visiting with extended family or neighbors. Help them build practical life skills: teach them to use tools; ask them to plan, pack, and problem-solve on family vacations; ask them to prepare meals or work in the garden.  

Let them separate from you. Zoë says, “That is part of their evolution into the rest of the world. They are starting to identify with other people in the world besides their parents. And now’s when they may need a mentor, another trusted adult to look up to. And don’t fear if your teen seems to prefer another adult’s company to yours. It is very natural and part of the learning process. It is part of their ability to adapt themselves into the world and then see themselves as part of a bigger universe than their family.”

Kris Berggren is fostering emotional intelligence and personal sanity by asking each of her three adolescents to cook dinner once a week for the family.

Emotional Intelligence

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

Both by Daniel Goleman, PhD., Bantam