Should Social-Emotional Learning Be Part of Academic Curriculum?

The Secret to Success
New research says social-emo­tion­al learn­ing helps stu­dents in every way.
— by Daniel Goleman

Schools are begin­ning to offer an increas­ing num­ber of cours­es in social and emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, teach­ing stu­dents how to bet­ter under­stand their own emo­tions and the emo­tions of others.

It sounds warm and fuzzy, but it’s a trend backed up by hard data. Today, new stud­ies reveal that teach­ing kids to be emo­tion­al­ly and social­ly com­pe­tent boosts their aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment. More pre­cise­ly, when schools offer stu­dents pro­grams in social and emo­tion­al learn­ing, their achieve­ment scores gain around 11 per­cent­age points.

That’s what I heard at a forum held last Decem­ber by the Col­lab­o­ra­tive for Aca­d­e­m­ic, Social, and Emo­tion­al Learn­ing (CASEL). (Dis­clo­sure: I’m a co-founder of CASEL.) Roger Weiss­berg, the orga­ni­za­tion’s direc­tor, gave a pre­view of a mas­sive study run by researchers at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, which ana­lyzed eval­u­a­tions of more than 233,000 stu­dents across the country.

Social-emo­tion­al learn­ing, they dis­cov­ered, helps stu­dents in every way.

Their analy­sis reveals that stu­dents receiv­ing lessons in social and emo­tion­al skills improved on every mea­sure of pos­i­tive behavior;such as class­room dis­ci­pline, atten­dance, and lik­ing school—and were less like­ly to engage in anti-social behav­ior, from bul­ly­ing and fights to sub­stance abuse. Among these stu­dents, there was also a drop in the num­ber who were depressed, anx­ious, and alienated.

What’s more, the study showed that the pos­i­tive gains were biggest among “at-risk” kids, who are most like­ly to fail in their edu­ca­tion. In the era of No Child Left Behind, where schools are rat­ed on how well stu­dents score on stan­dard­ized tests, that’s a huge advan­tage for indi­vid­ual stu­dents and schools alike.

Teach­ing stu­dents skills like empa­thy, self-aware­ness, and how to man­age dis­tress­ing emo­tions makes them bet­ter learn­ers, says Richard David­son, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin and a pre­sen­ter at the CASEL forum. He point­ed to data show­ing that when the brain’s cen­ters for dis­tress are acti­vat­ed, they impair the func­tion­ing of the areas involved in mem­o­ry, atten­tion, and learn­ing. In oth­er words, because of the way our brains are wired, our emo­tions can either enhance or inhib­it our abil­i­ty to learn.

Cours­es in social and emo­tion­al learn­ing also make great sense, David­son argues, because of neuroplasticity—the fact that repeat­ed expe­ri­ences shape the brain. The more a child prac­tices self-dis­ci­pline, empa­thy, and coop­er­a­tion, the stronger the under­ly­ing cir­cuits become for these essen­tial life skills.

These results don’t sur­prise film direc­tor and pro­duc­er George Lucas (of Star Wars fame), whose main phil­an­thropic efforts focus on schools through the George Lucas Edu­ca­tion­al Foun­da­tion. (Edi­tor’s Note: Daniel Gole­man is now con­duct­ing a great series of audio inter­views, includ­ing one with George Lucas on Edu­cat­ing Hearts and Minds: Rethink­ing Edu­ca­tion.)
Lucas sees social-emo­tion­al learn­ing as vital to the future of edu­ca­tion. As com­put­ers take over teach­ing raw knowl­edge to kids, teach­ers will have more time to help stu­dents with moti­va­tion, coop­er­a­tion, and oth­er ele­ments of emo­tion­al intel­li­gence. “Any­body who’s an adult, work­ing in the adult world, real­izes that your abil­i­ty to encour­age oth­er peo­ple, form groups, and get the best out of every­body is the secret to suc­cess,” says Lucas, who I inter­viewed at the forum.

Lucas argues that learn­ing must con­sist of more than just assigned read­ing and lec­tures. Instead, we must embed social and emo­tion­al lessons into the edu­ca­tion­al process, for exam­ple, by assign­ing stu­dents to work with oth­ers and grad­ing the group on team­work and emo­tion­al rela­tion­ships with each oth­er, as well as their indi­vid­ual achieve­ment. “These are the things, ulti­mate­ly in the real world, that are the main fac­tors in get­ting hired and get­ting fired,” says Lucas.

Research sup­ports these obser­va­tions. For exam­ple, when Clau­dio Fer­nan­do-Araoz, head of research for the exec­u­tive recruit­ment firm Egon Zehn­der Inter­na­tion­al, looked at CEOs who had suc­ceed­ed and those who had failed, he found the same pat­tern in Amer­i­ca, Ger­many, and Japan: Those who failed were hired on the basis of their dri­ve, IQ, and busi­ness exper­tise, but were fired for their lack of emo­tion­al intel­li­gence. They sim­ply could not win over, or some­times even just get along with, their board of direc­tors, or their direct reports, or oth­ers on whom their own suc­cess depended.

And yet, these human skills—how to get along, how to coop­er­ate, how a group can exhib­it emo­tion­al intelligence—are absent from the stan­dard aca­d­e­m­ic cur­ricu­lum. As ini­tia­tives like CASEL—along with sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions, such as the Com­mit­tee for Chil­dren and the Open Cir­cle Program—spread social-emo­tion­al learn­ing cur­ric­u­la to schools, I think we’ll see more and more hard evi­dence that these pro­grams are help­ing stu­dents succeed.

– Daniel Gole­man, Ph.D., is the author of the best­sellers Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence and Social Intel­li­gence. His web­site is Goleman’s full con­ver­sa­tion with Daniel Siegel can be heard as part of the audio series Wired to Con­nect: Dia­logues on Social Intel­li­gence, avail­able through More than Sound Pro­duc­tions.

We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berke­ley-based quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.


  1. Kevin McGrew on August 27, 2008 at 7:08

    The focus on social-emo­tion­al learn­ing is very sim­i­lar to the Beyond IQ (A Mod­el of Aca­d­e­m­ic Com­pe­tence and Moti­va­tion) post­ed at IQ’s Cor­ner. URL to spe­cif­ic post is below.

  2. Chris Elliott on August 27, 2008 at 10:31

    Daniel Gole­man rais­es some key points on emo­tion­al intel­li­gence and how it trans­lates to the real world. 

    I think at least in the US, social-emo­tion­al train­ing in schools will have to be posi­tioned as a good sur­vival skill (or bet­ter yet a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage) for it to be tak­en seri­ous­ly in most edu­ca­tion settings.

  3. Alvaro Fernandez on August 27, 2008 at 2:22

    Kevin, thank you for point­ing that out, and the link. I have enjoyed perus­ing your con­cept map. Per­haps you want to write a guest post to intro­duce the paper and con­cepts to our read­ers? will email you.

    Chris, that is a good point. Do col­lege admis­sions direct­ly or indi­rect­ly take into account socio-emo­tion­al skills If they did, I can see how high-school coun­selors would start coach­ing stu­dents, in infor­mal ways first, and then per­haps in more for­mal­ized ways, like those the post suggests.

  4. Hugo Vigoroso on August 29, 2008 at 5:53

    It seems to me that this is part of edu-cat­ing the “whole
    per­son” and not just
    “sub­ject mat­ter” in our schools?

  5. Billy Davis on August 31, 2008 at 1:55

    Socio-emo­tion­al skills are being taught already in all schools. The teach­ers are not grad­u­ates, they are cohorts. Stu­dents teach each oth­er the ‘ins and outs’ and learn through tri­al and error. They would not ben­e­fit as much from some­one who is much out of their age range. They trust their friends for this type of intelligence.

  6. Pat on September 2, 2008 at 6:09

    I found in my own class­room that if I could could improve social/emotional skills, improve­ment in the aca­d­e­m­ic areas def­i­nite­ly fol­lowed. I wish I could impress on oth­er teach­ers the need to do so also.

  7. Jeff Mc. on September 2, 2008 at 8:24

    This is a very good arti­cle talk­ing about the impor­tance of EQ along with IQ. One idea not men­tioned in this arti­cle is the rela­tion­ship of the decline in ES skills and the chang­ing of texts books to make his­to­ry less offen­sive. How do you learn an ES skill with­out first hav­ing a rea­son to gen­er­ate an emotion?

  8. Alvaro Fernandez on September 2, 2008 at 8:59

    Thank you for the great comments. 

    Hugo: yes and no. Yes, in that indeed edu­cat­ing kids is more than throw­ing con­tent on them. No, in that some­times “teach­ing the whole per­son” is some­times argued to sup­port ran­dom and poor­ly-thought out ini­tia­tives. we need to think what spe­cif­ic skills we need learn­ers to develop.

    Bil­ly: that’s a good point, a lot of socio-emo­tion­al learn­ing does hap­pen that way, but it is not the only one. There are more struc­tured and effec­tive ways to help young minds devel­op skills, as it seems Pat has done. For exam­ple, have you recent­ly seen anx­i­ety rates among stu­dents? pret­ty astounding.

    Jeff: well, there are many ways to gen­er­ate emotions…we often don’t even need much exter­nal help…I don’t real­ly see the con­nec­tion you propose.

  9. Nverati on September 19, 2008 at 8:40

    I see this ini­tia­tive while prob­a­bly not designed to dis­crim­i­nate against stu­dents with Asperg­er’s doing exact­ly that. Also it seems like a plot to make grades even more ran­dom than they are already.

  10. Nverati on September 19, 2008 at 8:42

    I of course for­got to tell that more group work means more peo­ple cheat­ing their way out of it leav­ing the bur­den on the few good, inter­est­ed stu­dents and thus rob­bing them of their illu­sions ear­ly already.

  11. marneta viegas on November 21, 2008 at 3:16

    i think this way of bring­ing up and edu­cat­ing chil­dren is so impor­tant. I think the prob­lem is try­ing to oth­er teach­ers that a holis­tic approach is vital is the most dif­fi­cult thing. I have seen such great results using these ideas, but no one believes it is nec­es­sary and it is so frustrating.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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