As parents we worry about our children's future and wonder how we can best prepare them for "real life." What will they really need to make it out there, to live fruitful, productive Jewish lives, to find and keep a job and build relationships? So much of our efforts go into choosing the right school and making certain our children's academic potential is fully tapped. But is this enough?

Filtering through the educational world as a result of current research, is the revelation that success in life is more contingent on social and emotional intelligence than on our intellectual or vocational aptitudes.

Many of us have always sensed this instinctively. Now the research confirms it. The extent to which children and adolescents possess good social skills, say experts, can heavily influence their academic performance, social and family relationships, and later, their success on the job. 

How do these dynamics work? Can improving social skills actually sharpen children's mathematical acuity? Is it possible that knowing how to get along with others could boost performance in creative writing or understanding of literature? 

"Yes," says Stephen Elliot, a prominent educational psychologist connected with Vanderbilt University. "If we increase social skills, we most definitely see commensurate increases in academic learning, but that doesn't mean that social skills make you smarter. It means that these skills make you more amenable to learning."

Elliot and some associates recently completed a study that found that "when we incorporate cooperation, self-control and consideration toward others into the curriculum, we reduce problem behaviors and maximize effective learning." 

Top Ten Character Traits 

The top 10 social skills the researchers identified were: listening to others, heeding the rules, ignoring distractions, asking for help, taking turns when talking, getting along with peers, staying calm with others, good sportsmanship, taking responsibility for one's behavior, and doing nice things for others.

If that list, cited in a recent UPI article, sounds like it came straight out of a yeshiva curriculum for teaching good middos, it certainly could have.

In a sense, educators and psychologists are "reinventing the wheel," discovering a fundamental truth about education established by the Mishnah two thousand years ago! Before education can proceed, good character traits must be developed [Derech eretz kodma l'Torah.] 

For decades, IQ tests that measured intelligence focused on logical reasoning, math skills, understanding analogies, as well as spatial and verbal skills. Researchers were puzzled by the fact that while IQ scores could most often predict academic performance and to some degree, professional and personal success, there was something missing in the equation. 

Some of those with fabulous IQ scores were doing poorly in life-both at their jobs and in their interpersonal relationships. It seemed that often they were thinking, behaving and communicating in a way that hindered their chances to succeed.

A groundbreaking book by Daniel Goleman, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It May Matter More Than IQ," sought to explain the phenomenon of finding excellent IQ aptitudes in a person coupled with poor performance "at life." 

Goleman suggested that the missing part in the success equation is emotional intelligence. 

For various reasons, he said, people with high emotional intelligence [EIQ] tend to be more successful in life than those with lower EIQ, even if their intellectual ability is average.

Goleman defined emotional intelligence as the abililty to understand oneself and others, relate well to people, and to adapt to one's immediate surroundings. 

He also notes that a deficiency in EI is often reflected by a lack of self-awareness, as well as difficulty with problem solving, stress tolerance and impulse control.

Goleman attests that the best remedy for battling our emotional shortcomings is preventive medicine. In other words, we need to place as much importance on teaching our children the essential skills of emotional intelligence as we do on more traditional measures.

What Comprises Emotional Intelligence? 

Researchers point to the following ingredients of emotional intelligence that most enhance and enable learning: 

Self-awareness: Abasic emotional skill involves being able to recognize feelings and put a name to them. It is also important to be aware of the relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions. What thought sparked that feeling? What feeling was behind that action? 

Managing emotions: Many people continually give themselves negative messages. Recognizing that tendency and reversing it with hope and self-affirmation can be liberating. In addition, finding ways to deal with anger, fear, anxiety and sadness is essential. Learning how to soothe oneself when upset is an invaluable tool. Understanding what happens when emotions get the upper hand and how to regain perspective before reacting are some of the most precious life skills.

Empathy: Grasping a situation and being able to act appropriately requires understanding others' feelings and being able to tune into their verbal and non-verbal cues. It involves training oneself to see things from different vantage points and conveying to others that their feelings resonate with you.

Communicating: What feelings are you communicating to others? Enthusiasm and optimism are contagious, as are pessimism and negativity. Being able to express personal concerns without offending or intimidating others is a key asset.

Co-operation: Helping each other work on common goals involves knowing how and when to take the lead and when to follow. It also calls for understanding that actions and decisions carry consequences and that commitments must be kept. Recognizing the value of others' contributions and encouraging their participation is of vital importance and often accomplishes far more than hogging power and giving orders. 

Resolving conflicts: In resolving conflicts, one must understand some of the psychological mechanisms at play. People in conflict are generally locked into a self-perpetuating emotional spiral that blows the conflict out of proportion and often obscures the real issue. Much of the resolution of conflicts calls on using the other emotional skills mentioned above.

The concept of emotional and social training being pivotal to education is inspiring research and curriculum development in public and private schools. 

A recent issue of Edutopia, an education magazine, profiled Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey, where a traditional curriculum has been restructured to include social and emotional training as an integral part of the learning in grades 6-8.

An English class discussion on a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto is directed in such a way that it becomes a conversation about what students can do to combat injustice they witness in their own lives. 

A journal-writing session first includes a discussion on what it must feel like to be a foster child. 

A lesson aimed specifically at emotional skills has students naming conflicts that create the most stress for them and coming up with ways to abate that stress. 

Teachers working on a project on the Holocaust and genocide meet to come up with ways to engage the students on a personal, emotional level.

"I believe that the social/emotional component is clearly the most important of a child's life," the article quoted Principal Tony Bencivenga as saying. "If we can create an environment where we feel good and care for each other, everything else falls into place.'

The True Trailblazers 

Ironically, while researchers and educators like Daniel Goleman regard themselves as pioneers in the field of social/emotional training, a close look at the dynamics inside a normative yeshiva would reveal that Torah chinuch andmechanchim have long preceded them.

In fact, an excellent blueprint for social/emotional training can be found in the many middos training programs that are part and parcel of many Bais Yaakov curricula, and in the mussar sedorim that are a vital component of yeshivas. For centuries, ethical values such as self-control, kindness, self-awareness, honesty and responsibility have been the cornerstone of Jewish education.

Of course, the Torah system of middos-training cannot be equated with a social/emotional training course in a public school, which carries no higher "moral authority." 

As opposed to teaching children to uphold values because the Creator of the universe has commanded them to do so and bestows reward and punishment in accordance with one's compliance, a secular program draws its mandate from the feeble authority of "pragmatics." 

At bottom, its message is, "Do things our way because it works; because you'll have friends; because it will make you happy; because it's good for society." 

In a 1994 report on the current state of emotional literacy in the U.S., Daniel Goleman stated: 

"...in navigating our lives, it is our fears and envies, our rages and depressions, our worries and anxieties that steer us day to day. Even the most academically brilliant among us are vulnerable to being undone by unruly emotions. The price we pay for emotional "illiteracy" [social incompetence] is in failed marriages and troubled families, in stunted social and work lives, in deteriorating physical health and mental anguish." 

How Our Children Benefit 

The new emphasis in educational circles on teaching social competence and developing emotional intelligence is bestowing dividends on yeshiva and day school children as well. 

"There was a time when telling a parent at a PTA conference that their child needed coaching in social skills brought a blank stare," remarked Mrs. Stern, a fifth grade teacher in a boys' school in Monsey, N.Y. 'Alright, so he lacks social polish,' you could hear the parent thinking, 'What difference does that make as long as he can read and write?'" 

"Today, there's an awareness among parents that when we assess a child's progress, we're using a much broader focus. We're looking at the whole child, because good scores in the three R's alone does not a happy child make."

For one reason or another, some children do not develop social skills as easily as others. They may earnestly seek peer relationships and then, having endured rebuffs, if not downright cruelty, retreat to the safety of home, family, and their own company.

Seven-year old Yehudit, the oldest of four children, was such a child. Energetic, with a precocious vocabulary and a vivid imagination, she eagerly sought out other playmates. Yet, despite repeated efforts to make friends at school, she came home dejected and sad. "No one wants to play with me," she told her mother tearfully. "No one ever invites me or wants to come to my house."

There is probably nothing so painful for a parent as the rejection of their child. Most parents have a difficult time grasping that the child's isolation might be a product of her own conduct, and not merely because the children in the class are snobby and ill mannered. 

In Yehudit's case, it took a caring teacher to tactfully explain that while Yehudit loved outdoor games, she could not tolerate the disappointment of losing a game or being "out." She invariably broke down in tears, even throwing a tantrum when she was "out" at jump rope or dodge ball. Her immature behavior and poor sportsmanship antagonized her classmates. After a while, no one wanted to include her in games.

While maturity is not a "skill" one can learn like good table manners, parents need to take the long view of social deficits and, with the help of a professional, map out a plan to address them as carefully and thoughtfully as they would approach academic or health problems.

There are tried and proven approaches in teaching good sportsmanship and other essential social skills, which, if the parent is willing to take time and initiative to follow, will almost inevitably yield success.

During the period of emotional and social growth there will be minor triumphs, but the road will undoubtedly be rutted with an occasional major disaster. Parents should not be disheartened. Children tend to have spurts of social and emotional growth laced with periods of holding their own or even periods of regression.

The key words for parents are good parental modeling, structure, patience-and more patience. The key attitudes are warmth and optimism. And if you embrace your child with all her uniqueness while not losing sight of the hard work you both need to do to reach a happier place, it is much more likely that you will get there sooner than you think.