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Q: Are students born with emotional intelligence? Do they learn it from parents and other students? To what extent can it be taught? How does it fit with the nature versus nurture debate?
A: As to the nature/nurture debate, there is a genetic (nature) component to everything, but environment (nurture) contributes at least 50 percent and probably more to the child’s development. Emotional intelligence is just another way of describing social skills. While some kids seem to be born socially talented, most kids have a lot to be learned and some kids don’t seem to catch on to people relationships very well at all.
Family environments are very important for developing social skills, and while only children are often skilled with adults, their family environments aren’t as conducive to learning to get along with other children. They may learn to get along with peers more easily if they have close cousins, neighbors or are involved in playgroups or camps. They often are skilled in getting along with adults because that’s what they practice most. Sometimes children coming from a culturally depressed background may have had limited opportunities to engage with peer groups. They have not been exposed to the “hidden rules” that govern social interactions. These children can be helped at school. A small percentage of children truly struggle with understanding most social interactions. Psychologists and counselors often arrange social skill groups of similar age children to help students learn appropriate skills.
There are also many books that are targeted for preschool, elementary, middle and high school children specifically for learning social skills. Free Spirit Publishing, one of my favorite publishers, has a very full library of such books including books about rude behavior, how to deal with bullying and how to cope with anger or anxiety. In my book, “See Jane Win for Girls” (Free Spirit Publishing, 2003), I have included suggestions for girls on friendship and coping with middle school dilemmas in social situations.
Learning to work and play in groups or teams is crucial to developing social intelligence. This involvement in sports and other extracurricular activities helps children learn how to deal with both competition and collaboration. Although most children start by struggling with losing, they quickly learn guidelines for good sportsmanship and social skills.
For children diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder, emotional intelligence seems very foreign and they often respond inappropriately to both children and adults. Social skills therapy can be very helpful to these children and by adulthood, their social skills can become very good and appear quite normal.
It’s important to realize that having good social skills doesn’t necessarily equate to being popular, a leader or enjoying a very active social life. Some very mentally healthy children and adults prefer being with small groups of people and spending considerable time alone. They might nevertheless be considered emotionally intelligent despite their preferences.