Children | Mental Health
November 17, 2015

Father of Sandy Hook victim: Foster children’s emotional intelligence


People skills top IQ in predicting success and preventing violence.

In the wake of the lethal attacks in Paris last week and a steady string of mass shootings in the U.S., it’s natural to ask how we can prevent violence.

One neuroscientist touched by violence offers an answer that might surprise: Jeremy G. Richman, Ph.D., says the way to eradicate violence is to better understand our own brains.

People’s actions are heavily influenced by the biochemistry of their brains. If we can foster healthy brain functioning, Richman said, during a Nov. 16 talk at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, we can prevent violence.

From 1998 to 2000, Richman researched the sympathetic nervous system at Vanderbilt. Since then, he’s worked on drug discovery projects at Arena Pharmaceuticals and Boehringer Ingelheim, the latter in Danbury, Conn.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Richman’s 7-year-old daughter, Avielle, was killed along with 19 other children and six adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, also a scientist, responded to their daughter’s death by launching the Avielle Foundation. Its mission: “to prevent violence and build compassion in communities by fostering brain science research, community engagement and education.”

Brain science in recent decades has repeatedly found that a major sign of a healthy, nonviolent brain is strong “emotional intelligence,” a concept described in a landmark 1995 book by Daniel Goleman called “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.”

As Richman explains it, emotional intelligence includes skills such as motivation, empathy and self-control. These abilities are crucial for functioning well — and nonviolently — within social groups, including family, the workplace and school.

Emotional intelligence, Richman says, “is the most important thing we can teach our kids.” Two days before Richman’s talk at Vanderbilt, a New York Times story explored teaching social and emotional learning as early as elementary school.

You can gauge your child’s emotional intelligence by considering:

  • Can he achieve goals (even minor ones, like finishing a book, or building a Lego sculpture)?
  • Can he recognize and name his own emotions?
  • Can he manage emotions? (“I’m angry, but I can control that.”)
  • Can he sustain friendships?
  • Does understand how his behavior affects others?

These abilities will vary according to the child’s age, but Richman offers advice to parents for nurturing their children’s emotional intelligence:

  • Be a good role model. How do you interact with your spouse, for example? Or the coach at your kid’s soccer game? Road rage is an example of behavior by someone with poor emotional intelligence. Children learn primarily from what they see in their parents.
  • Try role-playing with young children to demonstrate empathy for others.
  • Give your children “face time,” quality attention. “Caring about them, showing them they have a role in the world, is really, really critical.”

For more detailed suggestions, Richman recommends Goleman’s book, and also CASEL‘s (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) list of core competencies. CASEL is a national organization working to develop students’ social and emotional skills.

“This is real neuroscience,” Richman said, about teaching children empathy and emotional maturity. “We know it changes the brain, and predicts health, wealth and happiness.”

And people who are successful and happy rarely turn violent.


A child psychologist offers more ways to nurture your child’s emotional health, here.

Richman’s talk was part of the Flexner Dean’s Lecture series. These lectures, by prominent scientists from a wide range of fields, are held monthly at Vanderbilt. They’re open to the public. To attend, please RSVP online.

Early Childhood, Middle Childhood

2 thoughts on “Father of Sandy Hook victim: Foster children’s emotional intelligence”

  1. Marilyn Davis says:

    My heart breaks for the horror of what this family has endured…I love that this father is making a difference for the sake of his precious daughter!! This is amazing! It’s a noble cause and I wish them great success…but how does this work for those with brain disorders like the shooter? Normally thinking people can be taught these skills but how do you teach this to someone who has disordered thinking? Their brain doesn’t work! What ever I taught my son before his thinking became disordered was good, I taught him non-violence and hard work ethics, he was in the 97th %ile in achievement tests..then when age 15 he dropped to the 10th %ile….we didn’t know what was happening…it would be a few years before he would receive a diagnosis of Schizophrenia…our son, a beautiful funny, fun loving, sweet son became a person we didn’t know…the brain disorder took our son….everything we do is based on reason….you can’t reason with them because their brain does not work!!! It’s not their fault that it does not work! It’s a degenerative disease! Until people understand this….little will be done to fix this situation!!

  2. Cynthia Manley says:

    I am so sorry to hear about your son’s diagnosis. Thank you for sharing this important viewpoint!

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