At 8 a.m. one morning, social worker Jane Herron gathers a dozen or so of her eighth-grade charges at Hinsdale Middle School for an "advisory" hour. She lays two long strips of masking tape on the floor and tells the kids to imagine the foot-wide swath as a log in the forest. They are to rearrange themselves according to birthdays, without stepping off the log and without talking. One tall blond boy, reminiscent of the young Hubbell Gardner, for whom "things came too easily" in The Way We Were, automatically goes to the head of the line, only to discover through hand signals (two fingers held up for February, three for March) that his real place is somewhere in the middle. After a good deal of fumbling, gesturing, and creative attempts at nonverbal communication, they get the job done, then sort themselves out according to shoe size.
"What made you successful?" asks Herron, and the thoughtful responses range from "demonstrating" to "using a light touch," with one kid joking, "Who's our MVP?" It's clear that these teens have been subtly indoctrinated with some ideas about negotiation, frustration, false assumptions, and teamwork.
Ten or 20 years ago, social and emotional skills would not have been given much consideration in a school curriculum. It was the era of self-esteem, with a bandwagon of educators and mental health professionals intent on helping kids become more capable wielders of the world by making them feel good about themselves, even absent any measurable accomplishment. But in recent years, researchers have found that self-esteem falls far short of its anticipated benefits. What's more important is a sense of self-mastery—getting along in the world and knowing you can handle yourself in myriad situations. The concept is liberating for adults too: Rather than facing the daunting task of going back into your childhood to figure out why you are insecure, you can learn specific skills right now to become competent. No one's suggesting that you deny your feelings of inadequacy; you simply prove them wrong.