Teaching children how to recognize and understand their emotions, make decisions, and maintain relationships has immediate and lasting impacts on their mental health, academic achievement, and social skills.
Families and educators can work together to help children build social-emotional skills like self-management, self-efficacy, social awareness, and responsible decision making.
From targeted lessons that teach students how to cope with stress and anxiety, to general practices that promote positive student-teacher relationships, there are many ways that schools can help children build the skills that will help them now and in the future as they navigate college and career opportunities.
Families also have an important role in helping children develop these skills, and research has shown that SEL instruction is most effective when it is reinforced at home. This guide will outline the importance of SEL, what it might look like in your child’s classroom and how you can advocate for it, and how you can help support learning at home.
How important is social and emotional learning?
Social-emotional learning impacts children’s everyday lives: from academic success, to bullying and substance abuse prevention, to career readiness.
A 2008 review of over 200 peer-reviewed studies found that social-emotional learning resulted in:
- 9% decrease in conduct problems, such as classroom misbehavior and aggression
- 10% decrease in emotional distress, such as anxiety and depression
- 9% improvement in attitudes about self, others, and school
- 23% improvement in social and emotional skills
- 9% improvement in school and classroom behavior
- 11% improvement in achievement test scores
Self-regulation (flexible attention, working memory, and inhibitory control) has been identified as a significant factor in learning and academic achievement. School-based SEL programs help students build self-regulation skills and set students up for academic success through preparing them to fully realize their potential and develop the resiliency to face challenges, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Several studies have found that students who participate in SEL programs, or who have SEL embedded in their academic curriculum, have a 6% increase in high school graduation rates, an 11% increase in college attendance, and an 11% increase in college graduation rates.
Mental Health & Substance Use
Building social emotional skills is an important part of preventing bullying and improving mental health. Children who participate in school-based skill building programs have been shown to have greater self-esteem, decreased social anxiety, and lower incidences of depression. Most notably, studies have shown that aggressive children showed declines in aggression and bullying behavior and fewer antisocial affiliations. We know children navigate a range of experiences and emotions throughout the school day. Equipping them with the skills needed to cope with them in a healthy and resilient way helps them to be more engaged and learn deeply.
SEL also impacts teen drug and alcohol use. One study found that children who had gone through SEL training were 66% less likely to drink heavily, and several others found a 6% reduction in drug use. Other studies have found that SEL has been shown to reduce adverse mental health symptoms, substance use, and associated risk factors. All three of the National Istitute on Drug Abuse’s principles for school programs suggest that programs should address SEL, stating that prevention programs are most effective when they focus on promoting self-control, communication, emotional awareness, and peer relationships.
21st Century Skills
Employers have cited 21st century skills and emotional intelligence as one of the top characteristics they seek in prospective employees. In fact, 71% of hiring professionals said that they value emotional intelligence over IQ in a recent study.
SEL can help students develop lifelong learning skills like problem solving and critical thinking, employability skills like organization and teamwork. It can help students become better communicators, cooperative members of a team, and effective leaders–traits that employers increasingly value.
Check out this video from the American Institutes for Research on how SEL helps students in college, career, and life:
What does social and emotional learning look like in the classroom?
(Adapted from What Does Evidence-Based Instruction in Social and Emotional Learning Actually Look Like in Practice?, CASEL, 2015)
There are many ways that teachers can incorporate social-emotional skill building in the classroom. In fact, your child’s teachers may be incorporating SEL in the classroom that they might not even realize. There are many ways to incorporate SEL in everyday learning, from free-standing lessons designed specifically to teach skills, to teaching practices, to integrating skill building within the curriculum. Some examples include:
- In elementary school, how to label feelings using words like pleasant, happy, irritated, or angry. Other activities might include reading a story and reflecting on the content to explore different perspectives and feelings of others.
- Social studies and history lessons that focus on historical examples of inter-group conflict and prejudice can help students develop awareness of self and others, and can help teachers create a supportive and democratic classroom environment that fosters civic learning and social and ethical reflection.
- Promoting positive teacher-student relationships (like welcoming students to the class by name)
- Create opportunities for students to explore their own interests. In elementary school, that might mean allowing students to create an art project about something they’re passionate about. In high school, that could mean connecting students to community mentors for independent learning (like an Extended Learning Opportunity)
- Instructional practices such as project-based learning, creating opportunities for students to develop and voice their own ideas and develop the skills needed to get along with others.
The Family Role in Social-Emotional Learning
Families have an important role to play in fostering social and emotional learning and advocating for it in the classroom. Children learn social and emotional skills best when they have opportunities to build on them at school and when the skills, attitudes, and behaviors are modeled and reinforced at home.
When families and teachers use similar strategies to promote SEL, the transition between home and school becomes more consistent and can improve relationships between children and their parents, siblings, teachers, and peers.
There are many ways that families can encourage social and emotional skills, managing emotions, and making responsible decisions by creating a trusting and respectful home environment. Specific strategies include:
- Nurture your child’s self-esteem. A child with a good sense of self is happier, more well-adjusted, and does better in school. Strategies for fostering self-esteem include giving your child responsibilities, allowing her to make age-appropriate choices, and showing your appreciation for a job well done.
- Respect differences. Every child has his or her own unique talents and abilities. Whether in academics, athletics, or interpersonal relationships, resist the urge to compare your child to friends or siblings. Instead, honor your child’s accomplishments and provide support and encouragement for the inevitable challenges he faces.
- Take advantage of support services. Seek the advice and support of school counselors or other social services during times of family crisis, such as a divorce or the death of a close friend or family member. Remember that no matter how close you are to your child, she may be more comfortable discussing a troubling family situation with another trusted adult.
Families can also be advocates for SEL in their child’s classroom. Some strategies for advocating for your child include:
- Investigate your school’s efforts to support social and emotional learning. Keep in mind that programs take on many forms and are called by many different names, including character education, leadership, conflict resolution, or peer mediation.
- Organize guest speakers. Work with your school’s parent organization to identify experts within your community who can speak to parents and teachers about strategies for nurturing emotionally intelligent children.
- Get involved. Consider volunteering for a school or school district committee responsible for overseeing the implementation of programs to support social and emotional learning.
- Celebrate diversity. Work with other parents and school staff to organize programs and events to celebrate and honor the many cultures in your school community.
- Begin the discussion. If your school does not have any programs around social and emotional learning, work with others in your school and larger community. Bring together leaders from throughout your community — businesspeople and law enforcement, parents and educators — to discuss ways in which your community can make the emotional health and wellness of children a priority.
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