Elementary school students may not be thinking too much about a career path. Even middle and high school students often feel they have plenty of time to contemplate a grown-up future of work, family, and community. But the adults who teach them, counsel them, coach them, and make their breakfast in the morning are well aware of how quickly time passes. Today that nine-year-old may be wrestling a word problem in math class. Tomorrow, she’ll be all dressed up for an interview with an engineer. Given the volatility of economics and the stresses of home life today, it behooves those who care about children to prepare them well for their future.
For better or for worse, schools have a captive audience in students. What’s the best course for schools to take to best serve tomorrow’s adults? Keep upping the academic ante? Insert extracurriculars in every gap in children’s schedules to make them more well-rounded? Let them figure things out for themselves?
One answer is at once simpler and more complex than any of these: promote social-emotional learning (SEL).
SEL: Improve Academics, Teach Skills for Life, and Give Time Back to Teachers
Although it may seem there’s no time to add yet another program to an already-full curriculum, the reality—demonstrated repeatedly in studies—is that properly implemented SEL programs do improve life skills such as self-control, decision making, communication, and problem solving. Intriguingly, these skills also contribute to higher academic performance; SEL programs can help raise achievement test scores up to 11 percentile points, according to a recent meta-analysis by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). It’s also noteworthy that teachers spend less classroom time dealing with disruptive behaviors when their students gain the social-emotional skills found in curricula such as the Second Step and Steps to Respect programs.
According to the CASEL meta-analysis, students’ attitudes toward school, themselves, and others also improve after successful implementation of SEL programs. Children and youth with these kinds of positive attitudes tend to be more engaged in school and more motivated academically. Simply put, when students’ emotional and educational needs are met, they are likely to thrive in school. But what about after graduation? Does this same blend of skills continue to generate success in the adult years?
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in education to predict what will happen to a student who is interested in school and motivated to do well. Although employers obviously look for prospective employees with hard skills that match the job description—medical expertise for doctors and nurses, knowledge of best practices in education for teachers, mechanical ability for car mechanics—they are also seeking individuals who can cooperate, communicate with others, and resolve conflict (see the Gates Foundation-funded report by Child Trends). Even as schools are taking a more holistic approach to education, folding social-emotional learning into the academic mix, employers too are requiring a fuller spectrum of skills than a high G.P.A. and an ability to crunch numbers or mend broken arms. After all, what manager wouldn’t want an employee capable of working through both the practical tasks at hand and the kinds of interpersonal strife that typically arise in any workday?
Conversely, those students who felt disengaged from school, and who consequently may have acted out, spaced out, or skipped out will enter the workforce at a disadvantage. Not only will their social competence be lacking, but their academic learning will likely have suffered, too. It’s the whole package that counts
Friends, Family, and Community
Meanwhile, as the tempo of everyday life keeps up with the pace of technological advances, divorce rates soar and interpersonal violence continues to plague society. As in childhood, friendships and other interpersonal relationships continue to be crucial in the adult years. Individuals who have been exposed to years of social-emotional learning meshed with academics are likely to be better critical thinkers and decision makers; good life choices should be a matter of course for them. And a sense of security in their own lives and relationships may lead them to be more active civically, which will allow them to contribute in ever larger spheres.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development (82)1, 405–432.
Lippman, L., Atienza, A., Rivers, A., & Keith, J. (2008). A Developmental Perspective on College and Workplace Readiness (Publication #2008-35). Washington, DC: Child Trends.
Back to main articles page