Emotional Intelligence and Workplace Stress in the Afterschool Field

afterschool emotional intelligence mental health Apr 21, 2021
Emotional Intelligence and Workplace Stress in the Afterschool Field

Sonia Toledo DYCD Keynote speech (April 2021).

I’ve been working in youth development for a very long time. I started at SYEP back in the early 1990’s, worked my way up to executive positions and to finally started my own business 12 years ago. Back in 1993 when people were still trying to figure out what the regulations were, they would come to me and ask how to implement them. So, I’ve been training afterschool directors and supervisors for over 25 years now. And the main thing that I realized during these years is the responsibility that lies on the people who run afterschool programs. Many people underestimate the amount of work that goes into these hours between 3 pm and 6 pm. So many things need to happen for an afterschool program to run smoothly. Supervisors are responsible for managing their staff, ensuring that children and youth are engaged and taken care of, maintaining relationships with parents and caregivers, following state regulations, etc., which creates an extremely stressful work environment. And all this was before the pandemic, which only increased stress and uncertainty for afterschool program supervisors. Now more than ever afterschool supervisors and staff need to be supported in developing their emotional intelligence because their ability to manage emotions and respond to other people’s emotions is key to a successfully run program that enhances the development of young people. 


I believe that in the afterschool world we have an opportunity to not only engage children and youth in real world education by helping them develop emotionally and socially, but to also help our staff be emotionally and socially grounded. In addition to that we need to support and engage the parents in developing their emotional intelligence. This year as a part of my dissertation requirement I conducted a study investigating the relationship between afterschool supervisors’ emotional intelligence and their levels of workplace stress. I am pleased to say that I'm close to being done and even though I can’t reveal the findings before they are published, I can say that preliminary results are showing that there is a relationship between emotional intelligence and job stress among afterschool supervisors. Previous studies in other industries have shown that higher emotional intelligence leads to lower workplace stress, lower absenteeism/turnover, and higher employee satisfaction. 85% of success in the 21st-century marketplace depends on the soft skills such as emotional intelligence. Major corporations are investing in developing emotional intelligence because they already recognize that soft skills are just as if not more important than technical skills. 


So, we already know, and we have research to support that soft skills (such as that communication, critical reasoning, creativity and emotional intelligence) are a better predictor of success in college and in the workplace than hard skills (such as math, computer skills, and hard science). In this regard, we have it backwards in our conventional education system. We follow an outdated model and spend probably over 80% of our time teaching young people the hard skills, and very little (if any) time developing their soft skills. I realized this a few years back, and it inspired me to develop IDEAS Empowered by Youth® project-based learning designed to help youth develop the soft skills while improving their academic performance. When it comes to the afterschool and youth development field, the solution is providing resources such as emotional intelligence training for supervisors and staff. We have to understand that in order to help youth develop emotional intelligence, the skill that will help them succeed in the modern-day marketplace, supervisors and staff themselves need to have high emotional intelligence. 


What does it look like for many of our children who come into our programs with emotional problems, traumas and mental health issues, and who now will be coming back into the world after a global pandemic? We knew that they had behavioral issues before COVID, let’s think about how they are going to feel coming back after staying at home for months. These are very important questions that we need to ask ourselves, and the responses will vary from program to program, from one child to another. What are the questions our young people are asking these days? “What does it mean to be me?” “What does my color mean in the modern world?” “What matters to me and what contribution do I want to make in the world?” I designed IDEAS to help young people find answers to these and many more questions that they asked before, but that are becoming more and more critical considering how they world and our country are changing. Think about how hard it is becoming for us to navigate the world with all the contradictory information out there. Imagine, how hard it is for our young people these days. They have a lot questions, but they also have some brilliant answers. We just need to listen to them. And that’s why I created IDEAS. I wanted to listen, to help young people figure out who they are, discover their passions and share their ideas with the world. I wanted to give them voice


I am particularly concerned with youth in inner city communities many of whom have been through trauma. As educators we have an opportunity and I would argue a responsibility to help them heal their trauma by making peace with it, sharing their experiences and transforming it into growth opportunities. Part of emotional intelligence is understanding our emotional baggage that comes with trauma and finding way to talk about it. Let me share a personal experience here. I lost my mother in September of 2020. Yesterday was 7 months anniversary of her death. I had a very bad day. It was very emotional. I was on the edge and it took me some time to realize that it had to with my mom. I tried to be present and understand what exactly I was feeling. I allowed myself to feel my pain and my sadness and to accept the fact that I was missing her. Through practicing emotional intelligence, I allow myself to feel all of my emotions, to understand that they are a part of me and that they make me into who I am. And from here I take responsibility for what emotions I put out into the world and how I interact with the people that I come across. I work on processing my feelings instead of projecting them onto the world and people around me. 


How exactly do we develop emotional intelligence? The first step is practicing self-awareness.  Just like in the experience of my day yesterday that I shared with you. We need to learn to understand where our emotions come from and what they mean. We also need to allow ourselves to feel what we feel instead of swiping things under the rug. Feeling our pain doesn’t make us weak. In fact, only strong people can truly feel their pain without running away from it or projecting it onto others. Step two is being socially aware. We need to pay close attention to the behavior of others. Our children's behavior is our data, it gives us a lot of information about how they are feeling. We need to give children opportunity to express their emotions by asking them questions such as “How does this make you feel?” We need to not only teach the language of emotion, but to also be aware of culture that we are creating and make sure that we allow our children to be vulnerable and avoid shaming. We need to remember that even subtle comments such as “You never bring your homework on time” can hurt our children. We can always find kinder ways of saying things or simply ask questions instead of making judgments (e.g. “What do you need to help you bring your homework on time?”). We need to create a culture where children feel emotionally safe, a culture that allows them to say the truth without being chastised. This brings me to the third step – learning how to communicate more effectively, not only with our children, but also with our staff, parents, and all the people that are associated with the world we're responsible for. Effective communication starts with you realizing when your communication did not land. We need to be mindful of our communication style and be able to recognize if our communication style comes off as authoritarian or belittling. We need to learn how to listen and be empathetic. Finally, step number four is being intentional about our self development. 


We need to develop our emotional intelligence, and we need to remember that it's going to take some time and effort to change the old ways of thinking. We need to understand that the ways in which we have been operating for decades, perhaps centuries even, doesn’t work for our children anymore. The world has changed, and the education system also needs to change. Our children have so much to offer, and we need to listen to them, help them grow into emotionally healthy members of society who know that their voice matters. Our kids will have the task of solving some of the major problems in the world. As hard as it is, they won’t have a choice but finding a way out of the mess that we’ve created. The least we can do for them is teach them how to communicate and show them how to share their ideas with the world. I believe this is how we heal personally and collectively. I believe this is how we heal this world. 

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