Can Social and Emotional Learning Drive Academic Achievement?

Social-emotional learning has dwelled on the fringes of academia for many years, but with more experts contending that emotional intelligence could be vital to academic performance, schools seem more willing to experiment with SEL to teach emotional skills to their students. Marc Brackett, a senior researcher in psychology at Yale University, says recent studies show that veering away from emotional equilibrium can hinder children's ability to learn – and therefore, focusing on emotional wellbeing is not just a trend, but a real way to improve students' educational outcomes.

For children, Brackett notes, school is an emotional caldron: a constant stream of academic and social challenges that can generate feelings ranging from loneliness to euphoria. Educators and parents have long assumed that a child's ability to cope with such stresses is either innate — a matter of temperament — or else acquired "along the way," in the rough and tumble of ordinary interaction. But in practice, Brackett says, many children never develop those crucial skills. "It's like saying that a child doesn't need to study English because she talks with her parents at home," Brackett told me last spring. "Emotional skills are the same. A teacher might say, ‘Calm down!' — but how exactly do you calm down when you're feeling anxious? Where do you learn the skills to manage those feelings?"

Of course, those who believe that measuring academic achievement is tricky will find taking stock of a child's emotional awareness even more difficult. The long-term effectiveness of SEL programs is hard to evaluate, which makes the program's long-term prospects uncertain. SEL would hardly be the first time a promising idea that succeeded in the lab but spectacularly failed in the classroom.

The problem of evaluating S.E.L. is compounded both by the variety of "prosocial" programs on offer and by the ways in which they end up being used in the classroom. Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate "kits" with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. " ‘Mindful eating' is social-emotional learning, according to some people," Brackett told me. "It's a mess. Everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon."

Still, not all SEL outcomes defy measurement. According to Jennifer Khan of The New York Times, social-emotional training has shown to develop the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain vital to academic success because it impacts such things as impulse control, abstract reasoning and working memory. As a result, a meta-analysis of all SEL program participants showed that they performed more than 10% better on achievement tests than their peers without such training.

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