In a culture of education reform, educators have tried numerous solutions to increase the academic performance of children. Often, with new administrations, teachers are inundated with new educational programs that guarantee that children will learn and reach the academic standards that have been implemented for every academic discipline. In addition, every school has to achieve and maintain certain standards in order to be in compliance with federal regulations, state standards or with the Common Core Standards of Learning. Additionally, schools have high stakes testing which often forces teachers to focus on academic competencies while neglecting other areas of a child’s development. In a climate in which there is an increase in negative and violent behavior, educators are realizing that for academic success to occur, the social and emotional needs of our children must be addressed. In support of this concept is the development of an educational process that addresses the social and emotional development of children. Social emotional learning (SEL) is a process that helps children reach their full development in a caring environment. SEL is the process of acquiring the skills to recognize and manage emotions, develop caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations effectively. If students acquire these skills, then their academic learning will increase. Educational theorists and researchers have shown that teaching these skills will enable the whole child to be successful emotionally, socially and educationally; however, the support of the leadership is critical to the success of such a program.
The social and emotional development of children is essential to the academic development of children so that they can actualize their total potential. Children reach their full development in social interaction with adult guidance. Learning is inherently social. If we fail to recognize this truth, the social and emotional needs of children will be ignored. Children need to be taught these life skills. In addition, emotion drives attention, which drives memory and learning. Emotional and social learning must intersect for the benefit of children and education. These areas include accepting and controlling emotions, using metacognitive activities, using activities that promote social interaction, and providing activities that have an emotional context. If children lack these behavioral competencies, social and emotional dysfunction will develop and persist. These behaviors are manifested in the form of social withdrawal, anxiety and depression, attention and thinking problems and aggressive and delinquent behaviors. These behaviors can result in poor academic performance.
An optimal SEL program begins early, is age appropriate, and continues throughout the education of the child. It also intertwines the efforts of school, community and home. Although, it should begin early in a child’s life, it can begin later. Intervention at any age is critical to the whole development of children. Thus, if children of high school age have not heretofore received education that focuses on life skills, they still can benefit from its introduction into the curriculum. SEL encompasses and is consistent with many movements in educational reform, providing a framework for many educational theories and educational legislation. Social emotional learning provides evidence based instruction, anti-drug education and the promotion of high academic standards.
Lastly, programs and activities that help develop social emotional learning must have components that teach resilience, relationship building, collaboration, team work, grit, and goal setting. Often students do not want to work with others because sometimes there is an imbalance in the volume of work that each student performs. If the students are made to feel responsible for each other and for the total outcome, then they will work better together. They can learn to collaborate with others and set goals for the group. Teachers must periodically check to see if the students are reaching their goals and if there are any setbacks. Encouragement is key to the success of the students. Some activities can be non academic. For example, schools can schedule a field day or a barbecue to facilitate teamwork. Never underestimate the power of “play.” Children can learn to play chess and play checkers as a way of teaching grit. Students can, therefore, learn how struggle often promotes success. Failure should not be seen as a negative, but as a positive step toward achieving success. In my experience, students with the best social and emotional skills, achieve success at higher rates than those lacking these skills.
For implementation to be successful, school leaders must support this initiative by engaging the faculty, the staff and the community in the process. Engaging these constituencies in the decision making produces ownership. Otherwise the faculty and staff will believe that the program is another imposed educational reform. Everyone in the learning community should help develop a shared vision of SEL for implementation and sustainability. It does take a village to raise a child. For further development, read Paul Tough’s latest book, Helping Children Succeed and his previous book, How Children Succeed.