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.