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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.

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11 Responses

  1. Kevin McGrew says:

    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 says:

    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. 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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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. says:

    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. 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 says:

    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 says:

    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. 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.

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