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Trends in Education: Social and Emotional Learning


Educating our Children: What Matters Most

Parents, teachers, school administrators, and policy makers engage in a robust and ongoing debate about the primary goal of education in the U.S. Relevant stakeholders in the conversation seem to have come to a loose consensus in recent years. That consensus: the primary goal of education is to prepare students to become independent, productive members of society. Broadly speaking, this means school – the main vehicle for educating our children – is supposed to prepare students how to find and hold a job. And pay taxes. In short, school should teach them how to join the wide, wonderful world of adulting.

That’s why states like Georgia implement mandatory public-school metrics with names like The College and Career Ready Performance Index. Our youth need to be ready to fend for themselves. They need to be ready to find gainful employment in the workforce. Excluding those students who have the good fortune of being born into a situation where they don’t have to earn money to pay for the necessities of life such as food, shelter, and medical care, the path to gainful employment for the vast majority of our young citizens lies in either pursuing college and graduate degrees or learning skills or trades that enable them to meet the first day of every month with the resources required to maintain their quality of life.

We’ll sidestep the meaning of that phrase – quality of life – for just a moment, because it means something slightly different for everyone. We’ll reduce and rephrase the entire purpose of educational curricula in the U.S. to this basic equation:

Skills learned in school = Skills necessary for workforce success

But there’s more to it than that: we want our youth to learn the basics of civics, too. We want the next generation to understand how our government works, realize the importance of an engaged citizenry in a functioning democracy – or representative republic, for those who like to split hairs on that point – and develop the critical thinking skills to discern fact from fiction and truth from propaganda. We want all our citizens to make informed, intelligent decisions on the pressing issues of the day, and decide who they want to vote for and why.

Which means school is not all about workplace skills. It’s also about critical thinking, the ability to see the big picture, and the ability to understand how personal choices and actions – such as voting – affect the shape of our country, and by extension, the shape of the world. Schools can do that, and for the most part, schools make valiant attempts – with varying degrees of success – to prepare our youth to make rational, informed decisions on civic matters.

There’s More to Life

Most of us want our kids to lead fulfilling lives. We want them to have more good days than bad days, on balance. We want our kids to be well-adjusted and feel like they have a place in the world, and we want them to handle the hard times with poise and perseverance and the good times with grace and humility. Also, we’d love for them to reach retirement age and look back on their adult years with a sense of satisfaction about what they achieved and how they achieved it. And if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us just want our kids to be happy.

Can school do all that?

With the caveat that true happiness can only come from within, the answer may surprise you: the experts say – with the backing of decades of data – that yes, schools can play a major part in doing all that. What’s more, the experts think it’s not only possible for schools to do all that, but that schools should do that.

All of it.

The Universal Predictor

It’s tempting to say the happiness and satisfaction piece of education isn’t the responsibility of the schools, but rather the responsibility of parents and families. Which is a fair point. It’s also a fair point to say there are plenty of parents out there who think all the touchy-feely fulfillment and well-adjusted talk is irrelevant nonsense: what matters is you get a job and manage your responsibilities. If you’re not happy, then tough nuggets. Happiness is a bonus that comes only after you handle your business. If you can’t pay your rent, keep food in the fridge, and keep the lights on, nothing else matters: job first, everything else second.

We have an answer to that very practical point.

But first, a bit of backstory.

It used to be taken as a given that the single greatest predictor of job success was raw cognitive ability. Therefore, the purpose of school was to take the latent cognitive abilities of every student and make them manifest. Whether that meant becoming a woodworker, a rocket scientist, a professional musician, CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a shopkeeper, or President, it didn’t matter. Academic schools dealt with core subjects and student progress was quantified by letter grades and standardized test scores that all served to get a student into college and get a job. Vocational schools taught real-world skills that served to get a student straight into the workforce, without spending an extra four years or more in college and graduate school.

An Outdated Approach

We’re still operating under that paradigm: it’s about about getting a job. Academic training and vocational training are all about workforce success, which experts always thought could be predicted by cognitive ability.

Now to our answer: it turns out cognitive ability is not the single greatest predictor of workplace success. Nor is it the socioeconomic status of your parents, the part of the country you were born in, or how many inside contacts you have in your chosen field. According to Forbes Magazine, whose motto is “The Capitalist Tool,” the greatest predictor of workforce success is social and emotional intelligence. Forbes contributor Travis Bradberry calls it EQ, as opposed to IQ. We cite his article for pragmatic reasons: everyone knows Forbes is all about money. Making money, saving money, and transforming the money you make from simple savings into substantial wealth.

If Forbes – a publication that celebrates capitalism  – is on board, then that should persuade the tough nuggets, job first, happiness later crowd that there’s something to this touchy-feely stuff after all. Forbes calls it EQ, and says our schools need to start paying attention to the fact that EQ is just as important as IQ, because economic data shows that individuals with higher emotional intelligence make an average of $29,000 a year more than individuals with low EQ.

This begs the question: how do schools raise the EQ of our students?

The answer: by including Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in our school curricula.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is:

“…the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

In an in-depth, 142-page report on SEL published in 2015, the UK-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) identified the areas in which social and emotional skills rival and/or surpass cognitive skills in their predictive value:

  • Academic Achievement
  • Job Performance
  • Job Attainment
  • Health and Longevity
  • Personal Well-being

The report was the result of three years of coordinated and focused analysis of decades of research on the impact of social and emotional skills on success in modern life. Input from over fifty countries, representing a depth and breadth unheard of in educational studies, was pivotal in confirming the importance of SEL across cultural, social, and economic boundaries. In addition to the lifelong advantages identified by the report, the OECD used the information they collected as an impetus to launch a mammoth, long-range study to further assess the impact of SEL on real-world outcomes for students around the globe.

To conduct this new study, the OECD organized the information found in the various data sources and standardized the nomenclature for the different aspects of SEL found in previous research into a manageable set of metrics, which will help give SEL proponents a common language for discussing SEL in the future.

Social and Emotional Learning: The Five Domains

The OECD identified five individual skill domains, which they call The Big Five, as well as three other skill domains that combine aspects of The Big Five, which they call Compound Skills. The study will track student progress in these domains through their school years and into adulthood. We’ll discuss The Big Five skill domains in detail below. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into The Big Five or learning about the three Compound Skill domains, click here.

The Big Five Social and Emotional Skills

1. Open-Mindedness.

Students who are open-minded welcome new knowledge and experiences. Open-minded students display three traits:

  1. Curiosity. They’re interested in the world and motivated to learn about it. Curious students like enjoy encountering facts for the first time. They embrace novelty, are not averse to change, and don’t mind trying new ways of doing things.
  2. Tolerance. They’re open to differences, value diversity, and appreciate cultures other than their own. They tend to have a diverse group of friends, as opposed to disliking and avoiding those from different backgrounds.
  3. Creativity. They enjoy coming up with new ways of thinking and like approaching ideas and topics in their own special way. They tend to be original thinkers who are often good at the arts and unafraid of expressing themselves.
2. Conscientiousness.

Conscientious students are motivated to successfully complete all tasks before them and meet all demands placed on them in the school context. Conscientious students display four traits:

  1. Achievement-oriented. They have high standard for themselves and work hard to meet them. Achievement-oriented students enjoy mastering material and are interested in developing skills that will lead to a career.
  2. Responsibility. They’re reliable, have the ability to follow through, and generally finish all their assigned tasks on time. Responsible students honor commitments both at home and at school.
  3. Self-Control. They can stay focused on the task at hand, avoid distractions, and prioritize positive behavior to achieve goals. Students with self-control have the ability to recognize counterproductive impulses and don’t rush into questionable situations or participate in obviously risky behaviors.
  4. Persistence. They persevere through challenging tasks until they’re done. Persistent students aren’t easily discouraged and don’t give up when things get hard. They finish homework, classwork, and school projects on time, despite any obstacles that may be in their way.
3. Emotional Regulation.

Students who are skilled in emotional regulation are emotionally stable. They experience anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger just like any other students. But they have the internal wherewithal to work through their emotions without getting overwhelmed by them. They display three traits:

  1. Stress Resistance. They’ve learned the requisite stress management skills to stay relaxed and perform well under pressure.
  2. Positivity. They have a positive outlook on life and expect good things to come their way. They appear happy, overall. Though they will get moody and depressed just like anyone, they don’t get bogged down in their negative emotions.
  3. Emotional Control. They’re skilled in regulating their emotions. They’re able to control their temper and modulate their enthusiasm when necessary.
4. Extroversion.

Students skilled in extroversion aren’t extroverts, per se. They are, however, able to engage with a variety of people on a variety of subjects in a variety of situations. A student with this skill displays three traits:

  1. Sociability. They easily initiate and maintain social connections and are comfortable speaking with friends and strangers. They can work well in teams, participate in group discussions, and speak in public without debilitating stage fright.
  2. Assertiveness. They express their opinions and feelings confidently and exert social influence when needed. They’re self-advocates. They can take charge in a group situation. They speak their piece when necessary. And they don’t hold their tongue when they disagree with someone or something.
  3. Energy. They approach tasks – and life in general – with enthusiasm. Extroverted students stay busy and rarely do the minimum it takes to get by. They often appear excited and act spontaneously.
5. Agreeableness.

Agreeable students are good collaborators and place a high value on interpersonal relationships. They display three traits:

  1. Empathy. They’re kind, cooperative, and caring. They can see and feel things from another person’s point of view, which leads to deeply connected friendships. They reach out to people in need and show awareness for the well-being of others.
  2. Trust. They assume the best in others, and default to the position that the people around them have good intentions. They’re generous, non-judgmental, and forgiving of other’s mistakes.
  3. Cooperation. They value the interconnectedness between people and live in harmony with their surroundings. They generally find it easy to get along with people, respect group decisions even if they disagree, and work for compromise in the name of mutual good will.

It may be tempting to read this list of skill domains and see a normative set of behavioral and personality standards that groups like the OECD and other SEL advocates want to foist upon the unsuspecting students of the world. That’s not the case, however. These domains are descriptive, post hoc, and represent a set of measurable skills that help people succeed in their personal and professional lives.

The Future of Social and Emotional Learning

It bears repeating that early education and training in social and emotional skills lead to a host of positive outcomes later in life, and the positive outcomes are not just financial and job-related. They’re comprehensive and touch virtually all areas of human endeavor. An individual with highly developed social and emotional skills – a high EQ – has a greater chance of living a healthy and fulfilling life. This sounds subjective, but it’s not: the data are there for everyone to see. High EQ enables individuals to adjust, adapt, create, work well with others, take responsibility for their actions, honor their commitments, empathize with others, and participate productively in society both for personal benefit and for the good of the world as a whole.

Tools for Life

Which brings us full circle. In the beginning of this article, we asserted that the purpose of education is to prepare students to become independent, productive members of society. Traditionally, our schools achieved this by focusing on the brass tacks of reading, writing, and arithmetic – social and emotional learning were never part of the curriculum. Academically inclined students were encouraged to attend college and graduate school and then join workforce, while less academically inclined students were encouraged to find a trade and join the workforce immediately after high school.

The endgame for both tracks was simple: join the workforce. Well-being and happiness were never part of the equation. This is still the dominant paradigm. And the endgame is still the same. But now we’re coming to the collective realization that cognitive ability, vocational training, and academic achievement by themselves do not make happy and productive humans. We’re more complicated than that. We’re social and emotional beings, and to deny that is to deny our fundamental humanity.

The Future of Learning

We can’t see the future, but we can assert with confidence – based on solid data collected by organizations life the OECD – that social and emotional learning will take a more prominent role in how we educate our youth as we move forward. It’s already happening. Schools around the country are including social and emotional components in their curricula. What’s more, large corporations recognize that socially and emotionally healthy employees help their bottom line.

In twenty years, a typical high school classroom will probably be a lot different than it is now. It will likely focus as much on cooperation and collaboration as it does on standardized test-taking. We can logically assume that in twenty years, elementary school classrooms will be as focused on emotional regulation and self-expression as they are on teaching multiplication tables and grammar. That’s the direction education is trending, and that trend emboldens us to think perhaps we can predict the future – or at least say this: the future of social and emotional education is the future of education itself.

Are we right or are we wrong?

Time will tell.

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