It’s tougher for kids to learn the hard stuff if they aren’t taught the soft stuff

Emotional Intelligence While the concept of emotional intelligence has been around for quite a while, it wasn’t until Daniel Goleman wrote the best seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ that the term became widely popularized.

Goleman writes a great blog appropriately called which yesterday had an interesting post entitled Some Big News About Learning

Goleman wrote:

Here’s a sneak preview of some headlines that you’ll see in the next few months: teaching kids to be more emotionally and socially competent boosts their academic achievement. More precisely, when schools offer students programs in social and emotional learning, their achievement scores gain around 11 percentile points.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, where schools are rated on how well their students score on these tests, that’s a huge advantage for individual students and schools alike. And the gains are biggest in “at risk” kids, the bottom ten percent who are most likely to fail in their education.

That meta-analysis revealed that students improved on every measure of positive behavior, like classroom discipline, liking school, and attendance – and went down on rates for every anti-social index, from bullying and fights to suspensions and substance abuse. What’s more, there was a drop in numbers of students who were depressed, anxious, and alienated. And all these gains were in as impressive a range as those for academic achievement.

In recent years, people involved in the study and practice of leadership development have recognized the importance of fostering emotional intelligence skills. Managers who are not in tune with themselves and their reports will often have a more difficult time exercising effective leadership.  

It’s not really a huge leap to assume that the same concepts may apply to children learning. Now the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning has provided us with the research to substantiate this through a significant study involving over 233,000 students across the country.

Goleman also writes:

Teaching students skills like self-awareness, managing distressing emotions and empathy makes them better learners, as Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, explained at the forum. He pointed to data showing that when the brain’s centers for distress are activated, they impair the functioning of the prefrontal areas for memory, attention and learning (a point I made in Chapter 19 of Social Intelligence). Social and emotional learning makes great sense, Davidson argues, because of neuroplasticity – the fact that repeated experiences shape the brain. The more a child practices self-discipline, empathy and cooperation, the stronger the underlying circuits become for these essential life skills.

Fritha I am currently involved in an exciting project at Northeast Maritime Institute where we are launching alternative high school maritime programs for at-risk youth in the US and internationally. A significant component of these programs will involve a sail training experience aboard our brigantine Fritha (right) or other sail training vessels. We believe that time aboard a tall ship, which can be an alien and challenging environment for young people, most often leads to increased self awareness and respect for self, others, ship and environment.

Anyone interested in the value and benefits derived from the sail training experience should read the research report, “The Characteristics and Value of the Sail Training Experience” conducted by The University of Edinburgh (June 2007) and sponsored by Sail Training International. (summary | download full report).

Being a product of a sail training program (visit The Tabor Boy Project), I am a firm believer in what these experiences can do to help adolescents make an effective transition to young adulthood.

Goleman ends his post with: “The more a child practices self-discipline, empathy and cooperation, the stronger the underlying circuits become for these essential life skills.” This captures the essential spirit of life aboard a tall ship and the sail training experience.

Related posts:

Tall Ship Semester for Girls – Changing Lives at Sea Under Sail

The end of the cadet program on Sloop Providence

Sail training diary – Week 2 – Sailing with Kids (Guest Post)

The Privilege of Sailing

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Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

7 thoughts on “It’s tougher for kids to learn the hard stuff if they aren’t taught the soft stuff”

  1. The sink or swim metaphor is an interesting one because you can’t really learn to swim unless you overcome the fear and effectively manage the risks of sinking. Giving learners a safe and controlled environment that challenges but supports them can be extremely effective at teaching the subject matter and building self confidence in the process.

    Since no single member of the crew can sail the ship alone, we also spend a lot of time and effort in establishing an appreciation for the value of teamwork. One for all and all for one.

  2. I’ve noted over the years that when someone uses the sink or swim method of training that you get more sinkers than swimmers. You end up finding those who learn on their own and miss those who could get there with the right help.

  3. Agreed but a calm sea does not produce a skilled sailor. Pushing kids out of the comfort zone (in a controlled and safe way) can often accelerate the learning of both hard and soft skills. That’s what the deep water sailing experience does for many young trainees.

  4. My experience is that we traditionally separate the soft and hard stuff. Then we expect people to put them together. I think there is a lot to be gained from combining them from the start. You then teach from simple to complex, easy to hard. It’s more situational or task oriented. Let’s start by mastering fishing off the dock before dropping some into the perfect storm.

  5. Steve,

    Absolutely agree. We would never consider sending someone to sea without first making sure they know how to navigate (math) and sail (physics). But they also need to master themselves in the alien and at times challenging environment the sea presents(emotional intelligence)and to be part of a team living in confined quarters with their shipmates (social intelligence).

    Learning the soft stuff without mastering the hard stuff might create a nice person but they will probably have trouble competing in this fast-paced, interconnected world. We are attempting to prepare kids with both sets of skills.

    Your thoughts?

    P.S. Just did a quick recon on your blog and look forward to going back and spending some time there. Lot’s of interesting stuff. Thanks for commenting here and pointing me there.

  6. Here’s a question, can you learn the soft stuff witout learning the hard stuff. Don’t you become one sided if you teach emotional intelligences and you don’t teach math intelligence, spacial intelligence, verbal intelligence.

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