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Teaching emotional intelligence to impulsive-aggressive youth

Martin Henley and Nicholas J. Long

Abstract: Youth who lack emotional control have failed to develop mature emotional intelligence. They lack guilt or compassion for others and are preoccupied with narcissistic pride and seeking status through aggressive power. The authors discuss the necessity of a curriculum for teaching compassion and self-control.

After 10-year-old Jacob Gonzales gunned down Elizabeth Alvarez, he hopped on a stolen bicycle and rode off to buy a chili dog with $20 he had pried out of the dead woman’s hand. When police asked Jacob to explain his part in the murder, he casually tossed a pen in the air, caught it, and said, “Some bad stuff happened; it was a game. It wasn’t to kill the lady. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. It was a game, right?”

On 15-year-old Shaul Lickford’s block, two of his teenage friends were charged with killing a drama teacher, another friend was arrested for attempted murder, and two more friends were jailed for armed robbery. While Shaul’s mother worked in an office each day and attended college classes in the evening, her son pursued his initiation into the violent world of the “older guys” by snatching gold chains. Shaul fenced his booty to buy a .38-caliber handgun, and 2 weeks later, he robbed and killed a deliveryman so he could have money to buy a new pair of Nikes. “The sneakers I had was messed up,” he said. “I’d walk down the block and people who knew me would laugh” (The Young Face of Violence, 1994a, 1994b).

Such casual attitudes toward violent behavior raise two questions:

What goes on in the minds of aggressive children and youth?
What can be done to change the ways they think and behave?

In this article we will explain how impulsive-aggressive youth’s emotional intelligence is deficient, and we will show how using an educational model within a curriculum that emphasizes compassion and self-control can foster emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence
Aggressive youngsters like Jacob Gonzales and Shaul Lickford are handicapped by delays in their emotional intelligence. When we use this term, we are referring to the ability to monitor emotions and weigh alternatives before acting. Goleman (1995) explained the relationship between emotional intelligence and behavior as follows:

Those who are at the mercy of impulse — who lack self-control — suffer a moral deficiency: the ability to control impulse is the base of will and character. By the same token, the root of altruism lies in empathy, the ability to read emotions in others; lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring. And if there are any two moral stances our times call for, they are precisely these, self-restraint and compassion. (p. xii)

Violent youth are both impulsive and wanton. They lack two essential qualities of emotional intelligence — self-control and compassion. Emotional intelligence increases with an individual’s ability (a) to use reason and restraint when confronted by a stressful situation and (b) to understand a situation from another person’s viewpoint. Youngsters with adequate emotional intelligence consider the consequences of their actions. They think before they act. Impulsivity in thought and action undermines emotionally intelligent behavior.

The anatomy of impulsivity
Impulsive behavior is a survival mechanism that has been passed down to us from our ancient ancestors. During the Paleolithic era, an impulsive reaction meant the difference between life and death. Making quick judgments and leaping to action was the best way to eat and avoid being eaten. The biological root of impulsiveness is located in the amygdala, a bundle of small, almond-shaped glands located at the base of the limbic system of the brain. This system deals primarily with emotions and behavior, and the amygdala acts as its “switching device.” The amygdala instantaneously evaluates sensory information containing emotional content and forwards signals to the frontal lobe of the neocortex, which is the “decision maker.” It is in this part of the brain where a course of action is selected. The structure of this neural “alert system” has remained the same from the time our ancestors dressed in animal skins and slept in caves. Unfortunately, fate — and the speed of cultural change has placed us in a fast-paced, complicated world, but we still have the brain of a cave dweller as our guide.

Each day we experience the emotional tug-of-war between the primitive response of the amygdala and the rational processes of the frontal lobe. For young people who grow up in hostile households or neighborhoods, the neural track between the amygdala and the frontal lobe becomes the path least traveled. Impulsive responses to emotionally charged situations become habitual. The amygdala kick-starts an impulsive youngster into action without regard for the consequences, which Goleman called an “emotional hijacking.” For example, in the Pittsburgh Youth Study (Block, 1995), researchers found that impulsivity was almost three times more powerful an indicator of delinquency than IQ. When child psychologist Walter Mischel tracked the developmental progress of a group of impulsive children from age 4 into adolescence, he found they had become enmeshed in conflict. They overreacted, were easily frustrated, and provoked fights and arguments with their peers (Goleman, 1995).

In Children Who Hate (1951), Redl and Wineman catalogued 22 different situations that triggered impulsive and aggressive reactions in troubled youth. They described youth who were so out of touch with their own impulsive behavior that — only minutes after an impulsive episode — they were unable to single out anything they did to contribute to the disturbance. Redl and Wineman called this memory loss “evaporation of self-contributed links.” According to these authors, the youth were not lying when confronted by the results of their impulsive behavior; rather, they reacted so quickly and emotionally that they could not monitor their own behavior — neither how nor why they lost control. The inability of impulsive-aggressive youth to think about their behavior before acting is a hallmark of their troubled case histories. Beverly Lewis (1992), a mental health supervisor, described “errors in criminal thinking” in gang members she treated: “These errors in criminal thinking are totally self-serving and result in antisocial behaviors which are hurtful to others and useful in avoiding treatment” (p. 17). Over time, impulsive-aggressive youth develop a set of irrational beliefs about and defense mechanisms for their behavior that serve to decrease guilt and justify violent actions. In order to change such behavior, adults need to supplant irrational beliefs and defense mechanisms with a coherent set of rational beliefs about self-control and compassion.

Irrational beliefs and defense mechanisms
Professionals who work with impulsive-aggressive youngsters have used many different clinical-sounding terms, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, delinquency, antisocialness, oppositional disorder, and social maladjustment. Unfortunately, using such labels does not help to explain the behavior, and the diagnostic categories attached to these labels do not offer treatment suggestions (Henley, 1996). In addition, individual students lumped together in the same category can behave very differently. The impulsive-aggressive youth we describe have several general characteristics: volatility, rule-breaking behaviors, self-centeredness, and little concern for conscience or victims. Impulsive-aggressive youth exhibit four types of cognitive deficiencies that are based on irrational beliefs that guide their behavior and the defense mechanisms supporting that behavior. These cognitive deficiencies serve as “character armor” to protect them from the slings and arrows of their own irresponsible behavior:

1. They have little or no guilt about their behavior and therefore are not motivated to change it. They maintain this belief by

They also use an irrational belief we call “fortune telling” (e.g., “I knew the teacher would do nothing about it so I had to solve the problem myself”).

2. They lack normal feelings of compassion toward others. This lack of compassion is justified by externalizing their sense of responsibility (e.g., “If he was stupid enough to leave the keys in the car, he deserves to have his car taken”). This type of thinking also is manifested in such statements as, “Why should I trust anyone or be fair? Nobody was ever fair or kind to me.”

3. They are self-centered, narcissistic, and rigidly proud. They begin most interactions by focusing on their needs, first and always. If their needs are not met, they refuse to continue any discussion concerning their behavior (e.g., “If I’m restricted or can’t go on the trip, then there’s nothing to talk about”). They also are driven by their wishes and impulses instead of by reason and consequences. There is little appreciation for planning, studying, and acquiring academic skills as factors in success (e.g., “Studying and work are boring, and besides, it takes too long”). They want instant gratification. Their formula for success relies on having good luck (gambling), having powerful friends who can give them status, and being important (maintaining a reputation and being respected by peers).

4. They believe personal aggression creates power and status. These youngsters are skilled “sword rattlers.” They know how to intimidate others and how to maintain their peer status through fear. They delight in threatening others and seeing them back down. They become group bullies because it is rewarding.

They actively seek sensation. Solitude is painful because it can lead to depressing thoughts. To avoid this, they seek out and are stimulated by certain kinds of music, drugs, cars, and sex. They don’t worry about the future because they believe that

Life must turn out the way I want it to be. If I don’t get what I want, then it’s unfair. I will take what I need, and others will have to pay the price for frustrating me.

An educational model for teaching self-control skills
Impulsive-aggressive youth do not leave their emotional baggage at the school doors. They come to school brimming with uncontrolled feelings, which often are vented on other students and teachers. Most teachers know that many of these students come to school primed for trouble. Every day, teachers have only marginal success in dealing with these students in their classrooms.

Teachers both want and need classroom harmony. How can learning proceed without cooperation, mutual respect, and caring? The “three R’s” of the basic school curriculum have been supplemented by a fourth “R” — responsibility. The key to teaching personal responsibility is prevention. If prevention is not possible, an alternative would be to use a Life Space Crisis Intervention, specifically, “symptom estrangement,” to help impulsive-aggressive students. The Life Space Crisis Intervention is an advanced “firefighting” strategy that uses a student crisis as an opportunity to teach insight into self-defeating behavior patterns (Wood and Long, 1991). The goal of the symptom estrangement intervention is confronting the student in a benign way while also creating some anxiety about his or her behavior. Unfortunately, such an intervention is not always available. Early intervention through teaching compassion and self-control, the bases of emotional intelligence, will produce more effective results than trying to remediate violent, aggressive behavior patterns that have had 15 or more years to develop. We call this emphasis on prevention rather than remediation “fire proofing.”

The idea of teaching emotional intelligence is not new to educators. Many teachers attempt to promote its qualities in their classrooms. Indeed, parents rightly expect that children are spending their days in well-managed, caring classrooms. However, the expectation that teachers will possess the skills and knowledge to teach emotional intelligence without the benefit of guidelines or training is unwarranted and naive.

Teaching compassion
Impulsive-aggressive students will resist imposed change. Attempts to teach compassion and self-control by dictum are bound to fail. In their national survey of special education programs for students with severe behavior disorders, Knitzer and her colleagues (Knitzer, Steinberg and Fleisch, 1990) found a preponderance of “curriculums of control.” These educational systems, usually based on behavior modification, tried to change student behavior by enforcing compliance.

Instead of control, the classroom ambience needs to reflect a belief that students carry the seeds for change within themselves. Brendtro and Ness (1996) pointed out that building on strengths, rather than fixing flaws, has been the basis for some of the most significant advances in the treatment of youth who are delinquent:

Jane Addams saw delinquency as a spirit of adventure.

Maria Montessori developed inner discipline in slum children.

Kurt Hahn nurtured civic spirit through community service.

Karl Wilker taught responsibility to youth in Berlin’s jails and then gave them actual hacksaws to cut off the bars.

Janus Korczak developed youth courts of peer governance to teach principles of truth and justice.

Examples of programs that have successfully taught youth through cooperation rather than compliance include the Capital Offender Program in Texas, which uses psychodrama and role playing to teach empathy to youngsters convicted of rape and murder (Matthews,1995); the Youth-Reaching-Youth Project, an acclaimed national substance-abuse prevention program based on peer counseling (Dietz, 1992); and the Child Development Project (CDP) in Oakland, California, which teaches children responsible behavior and to care for one another. Instructional methods used in the CDP focus on giving students control of their learning. Cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and a children’s literature-based program teach students enrolled in CDP to help one another while they learn (Kohn, 1991). (For a comprehensive survey of educational programs that teach compassion, see the Phi Delta Kappan May 1995 special issue, “Youth and Caring.”)

In each of these successful programs, the resourcefulness of young people is respected, and they are involved in the decisions about how they will learn. In his article “Reframing Gang Violence: A Pro-Youth Strategy,” Frederick Mathews (1992) wrote, “Recognize that young people learn responsibility by having responsibility. Youth need to have a voice with respect to their schools and education, social services, community programs, and in government policy and planning directed towards them” ( p. 27).

The learning methods in teaching compassion utilize students as resources and offer them opportunities to make classroom decisions. This encourages students to listen and accept their peers’ points of view. The back-and-forth of ideas students use while reviewing options establishes cognitive dissonance (creative tension created by the gap between what is known and what is not known), which is an intrinsic motivator for learning, particularly concerning taking into account another person’s perspective. Educational strategies include the following:

Teaching self-control
In one way or another, all educators attempt to teach self-control, but there are many different points of view about its meaning. An observer once described troubled youth as “mad, sad, bad, and can’t add” (Knitzer et al., 1990, p. 9). These youngsters could be considered emotionally illiterate. Their “feelings vocabulary” is bereft of descriptive language. Because language shapes thought and action, a youngster who is ignorant about the meaning of the word frustration will be hard-pressed to identify that feeling and find a way to manage it. Even the most talented teacher would have difficulty teaching science, math, or reading without a curriculum. Curriculums provide goals and objectives, ways of measuring progress, and recommendations for educational activities. Yet, when it comes to teaching self-control, most teachers are on their own. One example of an educational program that teaches students to understand their feelings and think before they act is the Self-Control Curriculum (Henley, 1994).

In some classrooms, self-control means a student will follow directions, sit quietly, and work independently. Such a classroom is organized autocratically, and students who have difficulty following this regimen will be identified as having self-control problems. In another classroom, perhaps right across the hall, the teacher encourages students to be self-directed. This room buzzes with activity as students work in cooperative learning groups and move from one learning area to another. It is organized democratically, with an expectation that students will take personal responsibility for their behavior. In such a classroom, a student who lacks the ability to work cooperatively is the deviant. It should be noted that each teacher usually has different behavior expectations, a different tolerance level for misbehavior, and different methods of handling discipline problems. This lack of consistency can undermine school-based efforts to teach emotional intelligence. A curriculum with a goal of improving student emotional intelligence must also include a self-control part devoted to building valid social skills that can be generalized to environments outside of school (Mathur and Rutherford, 1996).

In a previous issue of this journal, we introduced a self-control curriculum that grew out of the Preventive Discipline Project, a 4-year, field-based study of impulsive-aggressive students (Henley, 1994). One of the study’s findings was that self-control involved 20 specific social skills. This information was kept in mind during the development of the Self-Control Curriculum, which contains assessment procedures, behavior management strategies, specific goals and objectives, and student-centered activities that are organized into five domains: impulse control, social problem solving, stress management, adjustment to school routines, and management of peer pressure (Henley, 1997). The Self-Control Curriculum provides a foundation for building emotional intelligence in all settings — school, home, and the community. Such self-control abilities as managing frustration, anticipating consequences, and resolving conflicts are generalizable skills.

The first step in the Self-Control Curriculum is introducing a self-control skill. The purpose of this exercise is to familiarize students with a specific concept. For example, based on information gained from the Self-Control Inventory (see Note), the teacher might select the anticipating consequences skill for one student, a group of students, or the entire class. The teacher would introduce the concept of anticipating consequences by asking a series of problem questions:

What happens when a child forgets to feed a pet?

What happens when a student goes to the mall rather than completing homework?

What happens when citizens are free to pick and choose the laws they will abide by?

These queries have no right or wrong answers. The idea is to stimulate children to brainstorm about consequences — what the word means and how consequences shape lives. After the teacher is satisfied that all the students understand the meaning of consequences, the self-control skill is woven into the general curriculum. This merging of self-control instruction into the general curriculum is a critical step in generalizing self-control skills. The teacher has multiple opportunities to teach emotional intelligence each day by combining self-control instruction with methods that enhance compassion, such as classroom discussions, brainstorming, and role playing. Lessons about self-control can be incorporated into such diverse areas as social studies, science, children’s literature, and classroom management. For instance, anticipating consequences can be included in science by doing experiments in cause and effect — drop different-size objects and predict which will fall faster, place a glass over a burning candle and predict the result, place different materials in a pan of water and predict which will float and which will sink. Anticipating consequences can be merged with social studies by having students consider possible outcomes if history were changed. For example, what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War, or if Thomas Jefferson had decided to avoid politics and become a gentleman farmer? Vitality can be added to classroom discussions about consequences by inviting former gang members, local law enforcement officials, or ex-convicts to class to discuss their experiences. A field trip to a local youth detention center as part of a unit on law and order provides a stark example of the results of failing to anticipate consequences. Children’s literature provides a rich source of material on anticipating consequences, and student participation in peer review of serious discipline infractions offers firsthand experience in social responsibility.

Beyond teaching compassion and self-control, educators must also deal with student behavior problems. The Self-Control Curriculum offers a variety of behavioral interventions that support self-control, including Life Space Crisis Intervention, sane messages, logical consequences, and reality appraisal. This is not therapy, nor is it instruction designed for limited social skill development in research settings. The Self-Control Curriculum is a comprehensive educational program that meets the needs of both teachers and students in their natural setting — the classroom.

This article described the complex issues involved in helping impulsive-aggressive youth who are devoid of emotional intelligence. Their lack of compassion and loss of self-control represent a handicapping condition that Goleman (1995) characterized as “deficient emotional intelligence.” A brief anatomy of impulsivity and a review of the irrational beliefs used as defense mechanisms by impulsive-aggressive students were presented. Two intervention alternatives — a Life Space Crisis Intervention technique and the Self-Control Curriculum — were discussed. We believe these are two ways of helping impulsive-aggressive students learn new skills in self-control and compassion, which are the bases of emotional intelligence.

The Self-Control Inventory is an assessment rating form that accompanies the curriculum, which includes teacher, family, and student report forms.


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This feature: Henley, M. and Long, N. J. (1999). Teaching emotional intelligence to impulsive-aggressive youth. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 7, 4. pp. 224-229.