Being Mama: Christina Cipriano, Director of Research At Yale Center For Emotional Intelligence

Christina Cipriano is not only the Director of Research at Yale’s Center of Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) and an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, she’s also mama to four children under age ten, including one with Phelan-McDermid Syndrome. Learn more about her inspiring story and the lasting positive impact of social-emotional learning.

Christina Cipriano Being Mama

The Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) and an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, Christina Cipriano oversees, designs, and maintains large-scale research studies on emotions, emotional intelligence, and social-emotional learning while providing training to teachers, students and support staff. She’s also the mama of four children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 2½ to 9½.


Christina shares what it’s been like to manage work and parenting during the pandemic, how she finds time to attend to each of her young children while supporting her eldest, who has Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, and why social-emotional learning (SEL) is essential to development.


Tell me a bit about your kids.

We have four kids: Miles (9 ½), Salvatore (8), Eleanor (7) and Luciana (2 ½) — two boys and two girls. Our oldest, Miles, has a disease called Phelan-McDermid Syndrome. It’s similar to autism spectrum disorder along with seizure involvement, global and fine motor delay and significant physical and behavioral regressions. There are about 2,800 people in the world with this diagnosis. 


It’s quite a rare disease. Is that why it took more than six years to diagnose him?

It took that long for a few reasons: We had a lot of misdiagnoses along the way, including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Pervasive Developmental Disorders-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Other Health Impairments (OHI) and autism. He was also diagnosed with potential food and environmental allergies, asthma, eczema and cyclical fever syndrome, but it just wasn’t adding up. Around age four, Miles started verbalizing and I thought he would begin to catch up. I even decided to hold him back to repeat pre-kindergarten. I thought the worst was behind us. 


What were some signs that indicated Miles was not developing typically?

He was born with urinary reflux and muscle tone issues related to his legs. He liked to sit with one of his legs straight up in the air, but other than that, he seemed pretty typical. At eight months, he just kind of plateaued. I was already expecting my second child at that time. Miles had his first seizure between 12 and 13 months old. Then he started having different types of seizures. Once we got them under control, Miles started losing skills at a profound rate. He could no longer walk up the stairs. He also lost his ability to chew and swallow his own food.


How old was Miles at this point in time?

He would’ve been six. He qualified for a second set of genetic testing. My [second] husband and I had just gotten married. The day we returned from our honeymoon in September 2018 we got the diagnosis that Miles had Phelan-McDermid Syndrome. It was shocking that there was actually a diagnosis. He’s now 9 ½. We have a trip planned to celebrate his tenth birthday at Disneyworld with Buzz Lightyear and Mickey Mouse, his two favorite “people” in the world. 


Your husband, Steve, seems to have played a pivotal role in your children’s lives.

Yes, he is an incredible partner. My first husband was already out of my life when I was pregnant with our third child. Steve was my first crush when we were 12 years old and in seventh grade. The story is like a Lifetime movie. We fell in love as adults and he adopted my three kids, then got married and had a baby. Our families have known each other since we were kids. There are lots of happy tears!


How do you manage to make each of your four kids feel valued and attended to when one of them needs continuous support?

Each of our kids has their own unique strengths, needs and interests. They’re wildly different from each other, and I make a point of not comparing. We find different ways to have one-on-one time, focus on what’s special about each of them and address their particular interests.


With our eight-year-old son, Salvatore, we do Lego projects and puzzles, read books and go to the science museum. My older daughter Eleanor is really into dancing and theater and music, so we watch musical movie clips together. And then Luciana, the baby, well, she’s benefited from us being home for two years. I got to be home to see her first steps, hear her first words. She got to watch her big sister go to remote kindergarten in our dining room for the whole year. As a result, she knows her letters. She also thinks that all screens have people living in them. 


We’ve had our experiences with jealousy or resentment from Miles’s younger siblings. I started showing them videos of when they were younger, when Miles was able to talk and sing songs. I’m trying to share that with them because he’s no longer doing that. So when they say things like “Why does Miles get to use his iPad all the time and I can’t?” I tell them, well, you can go do all these other things. Miles only has a few options right now.


In what ways do you apply your social-emotional knowledge at home?

We have a family charter. The charter is a RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, Regulating) tool. RULER comes from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Our family made a brand new charter to start off the year, an agreement among the family, how we want to feel and the behavior we will commit to each other to feel that way. For example, I want to feel respected. I want to feel connected and seen, so that when someone is talking to me I will acknowledge them. 


What do you recommend for parents trying to build emotional literacy at home?

There is a universal way in which to engage with emotion and build your emotional intelligence and vocabulary at home. For example, I might acknowledge the feelings I am having and identify what those feelings are. How do they feel in my body? How do I want to communicate those feelings? We talk about the different strategies and opportunities to recognize and regulate these emotions.


For example, I love to run. I’m not fast, but I can run far. It is my way of regulating. I also respond really well to progressive muscle relaxation. I learned to do this as a child and now teach it to my students and children.


How do you believe social-emotional learning provides a foundation for resilience?

If we are able to manage our emotions effectively and understand that they are productive information to support us in decision-making, goal-setting and forming healthy relationships, those pathways will promote positive outcomes for us across our lifespans. 


What led you to pursue a career in the field of psychology?

I was in a master’s program in International Education Policy at Harvard Graduate School of Education and took a psychology class with Howard Gardner [author of Multiple Intelligences]. It was incredibly transformative. At the end of it, Dr. Gardner asked about my professional plans. I said I was applying to JD/PhD programs. He said, “You’re a psychologist and you don’t even know it. You talk about staff, policy and people like a psychologist. You need to get a psychology degree and be an applied psychologist.” He even told me what programs to apply to. When Howard Gardner tells you something, you listen!


You focus on educating “the whole child.” Can you explain what that means?

When we talk about “the whole child,” we’re considering academic, social and emotional development. Rather than trying to look at any discipline or area or dimension of development in isolation, we need to attend to all the related strengths and assets of that child. After all, none of us develops in a silo, right? We grow as a community. Being able to attend to the many different elements of the child over time is critical.


What makes social-emotional learning (SEL) so essential to education and development?

The ways in which you process your world,your ability to store and retrieve information starts with your intention to learn and your attention to learning. If you’re in class and are more focused on an upsetting experience you’ve had or the fact that someone’s looking at you or you’re feeling worried or embarrassed, you are neither attending nor intending, and that impacts your ability to learn. So SEL is not really something else on the plate. As many folks have said, it is the plate itself. SEL is integral to the whole process of learning.