5 Reasons We Can't Ignore Social-Emotional Learning

May 9th, 2015 No Comments Features


Fewer than one third of students believe they are part of a caring, encouraging learning environment, according to a new study. And only half of students report having competencies such as empathy, conflict resolution, and decision-making skills. So what can we do to repair this deficit?

The general consensus among education researchers and teachers alike is that social-emotional learning (SEL) can help. By strengthening their self-management skills and social support networks, social-emotional learning can help foster students’ well-being and success. But we’ve got to treat it as more than another passing fad if we want to see it work its magic.

Where Did It Come From?

When Plato wrote about education in The Republic, he proposed a holistic curriculum that required a balance of training in physical education, the arts, math, science, character, and moral judgment. “By maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing, you produce citizens of good character,” he explained.

In the late 1960s, during his early days at Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, James Comer began piloting a program called the Comer School Development Program. It was, as he wrote later in a 1988 Scientific American article, centered on his speculation that “the contrast between a child’s experiences at home and those in school deeply affects the child’s psychosocial development and that this in turn shapes academic achievement.”

The School Development Program focused on two poor, low-achieving, predominately African American elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut, that had the worst attendance and the lowest academic achievement in the city. With help from the program, the schools established a collaborative-management team composed of teachers, parents, the principal, and a mental health worker. The team made decisions on issues ranging from the schools’ academic and social programs to how to change school procedures that seemed to be engendering behavior problems.

By the early 1980s, academic performance at the two schools exceeded the national average, and truancy and behavior problems had declined, adding momentum to the nascent SEL movement. New Haven became the de facto hub of SEL research and included active researchers who would become key figures in the movement, such as Roger P. Weissberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, and Timothy Shriver, a Yale graduate and educator in the New Haven Public Schools.

In 1994, as the term “social emotional learning” was making its way into the lexicon, the organisation CASEL was created under its original name, the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning. That same year, the Fetzer Institute hosted the first CASEL conference with researchers, educators, child advocates, and others in the field. These people were working on various projects that aimed to prevent violence and drug use in schools and to promote healthy choices, school-community connections, and generally responsible behavior. Nine CASEL collaborators coauthored Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (published by ASCD in 1997), which established and defined the field.

During the mid-1990s, Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which popularised the concept of emotional intelligence. Most recently, psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman released a book called Social (2013), arguing that research in the field of social neuroscience shows just how important it is for us to connect to others, and in what ways it influences our attitudes and behaviours.

These projects and publications have inspired further research and inquiry into how SEL research can be used to improve public education. What was once a popular theory has now become a potential turning point in the way we educate 21st century students.

Why Now?

Psychologists Felix Warneken from Harvard and Michael Tomasello from the Max Planck Institute in Germany have found that 18-month olds will, without prompting, readily help another person. In one experiment, a toddler opened a cupboard for Warneken who, while carrying a stack of books, indicated non-verbally that he wanted to place the books in the cupboard but could not do so because his hands were full. In another study, the toddlers disengaged from playing with a toy to help the adult in the room, suggesting that they were motivated to help even though it required effort on his or her part.

Another group of researchers found that toddlers’ happiness levels increased significantly when they gave away one of their own treats rather than a treat that belonged to another person. In other words, these children may have been motivated to help, not because someone told them to, but because it felt good. An additional experiment found that 20-month-olds who were offered a reward for helping behaviour were less likely to help again than those who didn’t receive a reward.

Vicki Zakrzewski, PhD, Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center, believes that channeling this inherently altruistic side of ourselves can help us not just in personal settings but in educational settings as well.

“Instead of using education as a tool to satisfy our self-serving, competitive needs–such as making as much money as possible, particularly through unethical means and to the detriment of others,” she says, “education will be seen as a tool to serve the greater good. Our educational practices and environments will shift towards nurturing the long-term well-being and happiness of students who, through their own experience of being cared for, will naturally care for those around them. And students who understand how to care for themselves and others will be better equipped to care for the world.”

In today’s increasingly connected world, social and emotional skills (i.e. “soft skills”) are becoming an indespensible part of an individual’s skill set. And according to the latest science, they’re critical for not only understanding and interacting with others, but for succeeding in our own educational pursuits as well.

5 Reasons We Can’t Ignore SEL

1. Attitude & Behaviour

A 2012 analysis of more than 200 social and emotional learning programs found that such programs improve students’ attitudes and behaviours. The study, conducted by researchers at Loyola University Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago, involved more than 270,000 K-12 students and examined the impact of programs that aimed to promote students’ ability to recognise and manage emotions, establish and maintain positive relationships, set and achieve positive goals, make responsible decisions, and constructively handle interpersonal situations.

The researchers found that, compared to students outside these programs, students in the programs showed significantly improved social and emotional skills, caring attitudes, and positive social behaviours. Students’ disruptive behavioUr and emotional distress declined as well.

Studies from 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2011 have yielded similar results.

2. Academic Performance

The same 2012 study found that SEL can boost academic performance as well. In the group of studies that examined academics, the researchers found that students performed better on achievement tests, tantamount to an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement. Programs were effective for students of all ages and from different ethnic groups, regardless of whether their institutions were in urban, suburban, or rural areas. Not surprisingly, the researchers found better results in programs that followed recommended practices for training staff in promoting SEL skills among students than in those that didn’t follow these practices.

“The findings highlight the value of incorporating well-designed and carefully conducted social and emotional learning programs into standard educational practice,” said Joseph A. Durlak, emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, the study’s lead author. “Such programs do not detract from but can enhance academic achievement, while providing students with stronger skills in areas that are important to their daily lives and future functioning.”

Environments that encourage and reinforce positive behaviour have long been identified by researchers as one of the necessary conditions for academic achievement.

3. Bullying

A 2015 study has found that SEL programs reduced bullying perpetration by 20 percent over a three-year period. More than 120 students with disabilities at two districts in the Midwest participated in the research, which was part of a larger three-year clinical trial of the widely used social-emotional learning curricula “Second Step.”

The study, led by bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage of the University of Illinois, examined SEL intervention during a total of 41 Second Step lessons, which addressed bullying, emotional regulation, empathy, and communication skills. Forty-seven children received the curricula, and 76 peers were in the control group.

At the beginning of the study, students were surveyed on their involvement in verbal and relational bullying, victimisation by peers, and fighting. Students were re-assessed during each of the three subsequent spring terms. Self-reported bullying perpetration significantly decreased over the course of the study among students with disabilities who received the Second Step lessons.

“The significant reduction in bullying perpetration over this three-year study is a notable finding, because much of the existing literature suggests that students with disabilities are overrepresented in the bullying dynamic,” said Espelage. “Evidence suggests that this may be because they are more likely to have social and communication skills deficits, and these are foundational skills taught in the Second Step program.”

Equal numbers–47 percent–of youths in the intervention and the control groups had learning disabilities, while the remainder had cognitive, speech/language or emotional disabilities and/or health impairments. According to prior research, students with behavioral disabilities are more likely to be identified as bullies by their teachers and peers than are other students.

Espelage and her co-authors hypothesise that the prevalence of peer aggression among these students may be a function or manifestation of their disabilities– perhaps an aggressive reaction to social stimuli– and whether they are placed in inclusive or restrictive learning environments.

“The potential impact of educational placement is a notable issue,” the researchers write, “because more than 39 percent of students with behavioural disorders are educated in restrictive environments, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.”

A 2009 study found that students with disabilities who received their educational services in restrictive environments were twice as likely to be bullies compared with peers without disabilities. They also were 1.3 times as likely to bully peers compared with students who had similar disabilities but were educated in more inclusive environments.

4. Self-management

There are also several person-centered reasons SEL can promote academic success. Self-regulation, the ability to control and manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, has been linked to academic achievement in numerous studies. According to Aronson and Durlak, students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges. Students who set high academic goals, have self-discipline, motivate themselves, manage stress, and organise their approach learn more and get better grades, according to several groups of researchers, including Duckworth & Seligman (2005) and Elliot & Dweck (2005).

Students who use problem-solving skills to overcome obstacles and make responsible decisions about studying and completing homework also do better academically (Zins & Elias, 2006; cited in Durlak et al., 2011).

5. Communication Skills

Communication is an important personal, professional, and educational skill. Social-emotional learning has been shown to help improve it in many contexts, and can serve as a guide to incorporating it into various curricula, including the Common Core Language Arts standards.

“Wile not explicitly calling them ‘social-emotional skills,’ many of the Common Core Language Arts Standards give teachers the opportunity to incorporate mini-lessons on emotions, communication, relationships, and other social-emotional skills directly into their language arts curriculum,” says Vicki Zakrzewski for UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good blog. “In order to identify feelings of other people–whether real or fictional– students need to have a well-developed emotion vocabulary. Being able to recognise and label these emotions as they occur within themselves helps students do so in others. Examining how emotions impact fictional characters’ lives also provides a non-threatening opportunity for students to reflect how emotions affect their own lives and the people around them.”

You can integrate SEL into your standards by helping students exhibit cooperative learning and work toward group goals; cultivate relationships with those who can be resources when help is needed; provide help to those who need it; demonstrate leadership skills when necessary, being assertive and persuasive;
prevent interpersonal conflict, but manage and resolve it when it does occur; and generally communicate with clarity and grace.

“Anyone who has ever had to collaborate on a group project knows that it’s not exactly a bed of roses,” Zakrzewski says. “Pulling one’s own weight (and getting others to do so), agreeing to disagree, and compromise are all part of the process– but social-emotional skills can go a long way in smoothing the road for everyone.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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