It had begun as a small dispute, but it had escalated. Ian Moore, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, and Tyrone Sinkler, a junior, had had a falling-out with a buddy, 15-year-old Khalil Sumpter. Then they had started picking on him and making threats. Now it exploded.
Khalil, scared that Ian and Tyrone were going to beat him up, brought a .38 caliber pistol to school one morning, and, 15 feet from a school guard, shot both boys to death at point-blank range in the school's hallway.
The incident, chilling as it is, can be read as yet another sign of a desperate need for lessons in handling emotions, settling disagreements peaceably, and just plain getting along. Educators, long disturbed by schoolchildren's lagging scores in math and reading, are realizing there is a different and more alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy.1 And while laudable efforts are being made to raise academic standards, this new and troubling deficiency is not being addressed in the standard school curriculum. As one Brooklyn teacher put it, the present emphasis in schools suggests that "we care more about how well schoolchildren can read and write than whether they'll be alive next week."
Signs of the deficiency can be seen in violent incidents such as the shooting of Ian and Tyrone, growing ever more common in American schools. But these are more than isolated events; the heightening of the turmoil of adolescence and troubles of childhood can be read—for the United States is a bellwether of world trends—in statistics such as these.2
In 1990, compared to the previous two decades, the United States saw the highest juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes ever; teen arrests for forcible rape had doubled; teen murder rates quadrupled, mostly due to an increase in shootings.3 During those same two decades, the suicide rate for teenagers tripled, as did the number of children under 14 who are murder victims.4
These alarming statistics are like the canary in the coal miner's tunnel whose death warns of too little oxygen. Beyond such sobering numbers, the plight of today's children can be seen at more subtle levels, in day-to-day problems that have not yet blossomed into outright crises. Perhaps the most telling data of all—a direct barometer of dropping levels of emotional competence—are from a national sample of American children, ages seven to sixteen, comparing their emotional condition in the mid-1970s and at the end of the 1980s.8 Based on parents' and teachers' assessments, there was a steady worsening. No one problem stood out; all indicators simply crept steadily in the wrong direction. Children, on average, were doing more poorly in these specific ways: [exhibiting] withdrawal or social problems...[feeling] anxious and depressed...[evidencing] attention or thinking problems...[acting] delinquent or aggressive.
While any of these problems in isolation raises no eyebrows, taken as a group they are barometers of a sea change, a new kind of toxicity seeping into and poisoning the very experience of childhood, signifying sweeping deficits in emotional competences. This emotional malaise seems to be a universal price of modern life for children...No children, rich or poor, are exempt from risk; these problems are universal, occurring in all ethnic, racial, and income groups. Thus while children in poverty have the worst record on indices of emotional skills, their rate of deterioration over the decades was no worse than for middle-class children or for wealthy children: All show the same steady slide.
This is not just an American phenomenon but a global one, with world-wide competition to drive down labor costs creating economic forces that press on the family. These are times of financially besieged families, in which both parents work long hours so children are left to their own devices or the TV baby-sits; when more children than ever grow up in poverty; when the one-parent family is becoming ever more commonplace; when more infants and toddlers are left in day care so poorly run that it amounts to neglect. All this means, even for well-intentioned parents, the erosion of the countless small, nourishing exchanges between parent and child that build emotional competences.
Rethinking Schools: Teaching by Being, Communities That Care
As family life no longer offers growing numbers of children a sure footing in life, schools are left as the one place communities can turn to for correctives to children's deficiencies in emotional and social competence. That is not to say that schools alone can stand in for all the social institutions that too often are in or nearing collapse. But since virtually every child goes to school (at least at the outset), it offers a place to reach children with basic lessons for living that they may never get otherwise. Emotional literacy implies an expanded mandate for schools. This daunting task requires two major changes: that teachers go beyond their traditional mission and that people in the community become more involved with schools.
Many [emotional literacy] courses and the momentum for their spread come from an ongoing series of school-based prevention programs, each targeting a specific problem: teen smoking, drug abuse, pregnancy, dropping out, and more recently violence....The W.T. Grant Consortium's study of prevention programs found they are far more effective when they teach a core of emotional and social competences, such as impulse control, managing anger, and finding creative solutions to social predicaments.68...[An effective prevention program's] main, ongoing subject is the core competence that is brought to bear on any specific dilemmas: emotional intelligence.
This new [focus on emotional intelligence] makes emotions and social life themselves topics, rather than treating these most compelling facets of a child's day as irrelevant intrusions.... The classes themselves may at first glance seem uneventful, much less a solution to the dramatic problems they address. But that is largely because, like good childrearing at home, the lessons imparted are small but telling, delivered regularly and over a sustained period of years. That is how emotional learning becomes ingrained; as experiences are repeated over and over, the brain reflects them as strengthened pathways, neural habits to apply in times of duress, frustration, hurt. And while the everyday substance of emotional literacy classes may look mundane, the outcome—decent human beings—is more critical to our future than ever.