Schools Teaching Social-Emotional Intelligence Skills in Class?


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Should schools teach social-emotional skills? Image by exemplum.

Should schools use resources to teach emotional skills, or should they stick to basic math, reading, and science?  The topic of learning about emotions  has been featured recently in The New York Times Magazine and is promoted on websites for educators such as Edutopia.

No one disputes that kids at elementary school recess and in the classroom need to learn how to act in a socially acceptable manner, but should classes specifically seek to teach what is termed “social-emotional” learning or SEL?

Groups such as The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Living (CSEFEL) not only support the idea of using socio-emotional curriculum, they have published an online guide to choosing an SEL program.

Edutopia explains SEL techniques include resolving “conflicts between students… through collaborative problem-solving activities, such as conferences or role-playing” or starting a writing assignment with a prompt such as “Think about things that you have done that have given you strong feelings — times that made you really happy, for example, or really sad.”  These touchy-feely approaches, it turns out, are more effective than sending children to the principal’s office.

The Science of Teaching Emotional Regulation

According to The New York Times Magazine, “The theory that kids need to learn to manage their emotions in order to reach their potential grew out of the research of a pair of psychology professors — John Mayer, at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, at Yale.”

In 2011, Dr. Joseph A. Durlak and colleagues conducted “a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. Compared to controls, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement.”  In other words, children who participated in SEL programs did better academically than children who did not.  This correlates with the notion that learning to control emotions leads to a better learning environment.

If SEL leads to better social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior and academic performance, not including it in the curriculum seems short-sighted at best.

SEL Curriculum Considerations

According to CSEFEL, several considerations must be taken into account before a school or family uses a formal curriculum.  The first question CSEFEL poses is “Has this curriculum been shown to produce scientifically-verifiable outcomes?”  CSEFEL also encourages adopters to ask “Has this curriculum been adopted successfully by programs like ours?

The intent of the program is also a factor.  Potential users should inquire “Does the curriculum actually impact all of the social-emotional outcomes we are concerned about?” 

Socio-emotional curriculum vary.

According to CSEFEL, “Some curricula focus primarily on friendship skills, others on emotional regulation, still others on resolving peer conflicts.”  But one thing these curriculum have in common, according to Dr. Durlak, is that in  helping children reach academic and social goals, SEL programs score an A+.


Durlak, Joseph, et al. The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. (2011). Wiley Online Library: Child Development. Accessed September 23, 2013.

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Living. How To Choose a Socio-Emotional Curriculum? (CSEFEL). Accessed September 23, 2013.

Kahn, J. Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?  (2013). New York Times Magazine. Accessed September 23, 2013.

Edutopia. Research: How SEL Classroom Management Techniques Build Academic Achievement. (2013). Accessed September 23, 2013.

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