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Accessing emotions is emotional intelligence

Ronen Habib helps works to prevent student suicides—Photo: Rajneesh Londhe  

Ronen Habib teaches Positive Psychology at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, and runs EQSchools, an organisation that works with schools in the United States to provide ‘emotional intelligence training’. He is currently in Mumbai to speak at Learn Shift India, an education conference organised by RN Podar School on April 5.

In a brief interview, just hours after he landed in Mumbai, Habib answered questions about his work, locating it in the context of gun violence on school campuses, and rising Islamophobia.

Habib grew up in Israel and Belgium before he moved to the United States at the age of 14. Is his Jewish heritage a factor in the US, where it is not uncommon for Jews to be automatically labelled Zionist, pro-Israel, anti-Palestine, anti-Muslim. Habib acknowledges that this polarisation disturbs him but “no one, as yet, has refused to take my courses because I am Jewish..”

“Racial tensions are a complicated topic in my country,” he says. “What you have seen with a movement like Black Lives Matter is a real, serious issue. We are a country in which a large portion of the population’s ancestry is connected to the practice of slavery. Sure, we have an African-American President in the White House but look at what happens in the streets.”

His way of addressing these tensions is to create within his classroom, “an environment where all students are invited to talk about their strengths and struggles, where vulnerability is celebrated. [This] enables students to build strong bonds, where it is not about race anymore but about being human.” He recognises this safe space is a bubble, but it’s a “very important bubble that students can come back to, in order to grow academically and personally; it’s a place where they learn skills that are transferable to their lives outside.”

Emotional intelligence, he says, is “the ability to have access to your emotions, to be able to understand and name them so that you can use this information to make decisions about moving forward, and to also understand emotions in other people in a pretty fine way to communicate more effectively.”

Habib has trained with Frank Andrews, the University of California Santa Cruz professor legendary for his work in pedagogical innovation as well as the psychology of personal growth. He also has a Master’s degree in Education and teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. However, it was from his wife Allison, a therapist, that he really learnt “how to understand the use of emotions as a compass, and not things to be afraid of.”

While working with school administrators, he focuses on “helping them how to sustain their commitment to positive psychology, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence over time, in a strategic way.” With parents, his emphasis is on getting them to see that “when kids have issues, they do not come out of nowhere,” so that they are emotionally available when their kids need them.

Habib has observed quite closely the intensity of what can happen when children do not receive emotional nourishment. “Five years ago, we had a suicide cluster at Gunn High School. One child took his life, then another, and yet another. They were mentally ill. It happened last year as well. I know that my work is not going to stop every suicide but it offers students a way to boost their base level of happiness in a sustained way so that they can be calmer, positive, and more productive.”

He is also concerned about the gun violence on school campuses, and hopes that the emotional intelligence training will empower students “to seek help when they need it” instead of “repressing their emotions for long, and then taking them out on someone else.” Getting students to think about non-violence has been an abiding theme in his work. He used to teach a course titled ‘Sociology of Genocide’ to eleventh and twelfth graders. “The history was a small part of the course. We talked more about the human behaviour that led to them. If there were no bystanders, there would be no genocide. I ask my students to understand human behaviour at a micro level first. We are all perpetrators, victims and bystanders in our everyday lives. If we acknowledge this, our interactions will become more thoughtful.”

Sure, we have an African-American President but look

at what happens

on the streets

Ronen HabibEducationist

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 6:58:24 PM |

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