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How Focus Changed My Thinking About Emotional Intelligence

Children who learn how to focus also enhance their emotional intelligence.

In a second-grade classroom at a school in Spanish Harlem, the teacher told me that a child had come to class very upset: Someone she knew had been shot. The teacher then asked the students how many of them knew a person who had been shot—and every hand went up.

The children’s school was right next to a massive housing project were most of these children live. On top of the difficulties of such a childhood, half of the children in this class had “special needs,” ranging from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder to the autism spectrum. I expected the atmosphere to be chaotic. Instead the students were quiet, focused, and calm.

The secret? I watched the children have their daily session of “breathing buddies,” where they lie on the floor, each with a favorite stuffed animal on their belly, and count 1-2-3 as their breath rises and as it falls. This simple exercise strengthens the brain’s circuits for attention—and it has changed my thinking about emotional intelligence.

The prefrontal circuitry that focuses the mind has another role: It also calms the body from stress arousal. These children were training their brains to be both more concentrated and to recover more quickly from upsetting emotions (which is the operational definition of resilience).

Those two skills heighten a child’s readiness to learn. They also enhance their emotional intelligence (EI). Here’s why.

EI refers to two kinds of focus. First: an inward awareness of our thoughts and our feelings, and applying that in managing our upsets and focus on our goals. Second: a focus on others, to empathize and understand them, and on the basis of this to have effective interactions and relationships.

What I had not realized until now was how essential the basic skills of attention—focus—are in building these skills.

Linda Lantieri, head of the Inner Resilience Program, which brought the breathing exercise to the school along with a host of other emotional intelligence skill-builders tells me that when children strengthen their focusing abilities in this way, it speeds up by a year or two their acquisition of the rest of the EI skill set.

When I spoke to the teacher of these second-graders, she told me about a day when scheduling glitches made them skip the breathing exercise. The result: the kids were all over the place.

With young people growing up in a world of distractions as never before, it’s time to teach attention skills, the fundamental ability in readiness to learn.