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Lifelong Success Starts With Social-Emotional Learning

Jennifer Ng'andu

Working to promote the social and emotional wellbeing of all children and families and to mitigate the effects of violence and trauma.
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Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Olga Acosta Price, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, and Wendy Baron, Chief Academic Officer of the New Teacher Center.

We all know that how well students score on reading and other tests influences their ability to succeed later -- getting into college, for example, or securing a good job. But what if skills like sharing, problem solving, or cooperating had dramatic, long-term effects on those very same outcomes?

The Importance of Social Competence

A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health revealed a direct link between children's social and emotional skills and their success across a wide range of health, social, and economic measures.

Leveraging 20 years of data, researchers tracked 753 children from kindergarten to their twenties to investigate whether "social competence" in kindergarten could predict how the same kids would fare as young adults. They found that early social competence was a consistent, significant predictor of outcomes in education, employment, criminal justice, substance use, and mental health. In fact, for every one-point increase in a child's social competence score, he or she was:

  • Twice as likely to attain a college degree
  • 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma
  • 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job in early adulthood

Conversely, a one-point decrease in social competence was linked with a 67 percent higher chance of being arrested by early adulthood and a 64 percent higher chance of spending time in juvenile detention.

In other words, the greater the disparity in social skills, the wider the gap in adult outcomes -- kids who scored "well" on social competence were four times more likely to obtain a college degree than kids at the bottom end of the spectrum.

These findings confirm what a growing body of research tells us about the importance of investing in children's social competence -- and sustaining those investments. They also tell us how much is at stake when our children lack the necessary social and emotional foundation for a healthy start in life.

Developing Social and Academic Aptitude

The good news is that social skills can be learned, and early childhood is an ideal time to foster them. The New Teacher Center has developed tools and strategies to help teachers put that intention into practice while promoting academic learning.

Use these six simple strategies to develop children's social and academic aptitude:

1. Help students know themselves.

Even young children can practice self-awareness! Classroom routines like "morning circle" or "connections and reflections" offer a safe setting in which students learn to name their feelings and identify their strengths and challenges.

2. Have students stand in the shoes of others.

The crucial thinking skill of taking other perspectives supports academic success along with social competence. Students of all ages love to practice it -- through games, role-plays, or debates.

3. Teach students to seek and give feedback.

Being receptive to useful feedback sets children up for lifelong learning. Even younger students can look at exemplars of excellence, and see how their own work could improve.

4. Practice listening.

We all learn more when we listen well. Are we tuning out? Jumping to conclusions? Interrupting or dismissing ideas that we don't share? Young people think more deeply and communicate more clearly when we explicitly teach, practice, and assess listening skills. Bonus: Teachers who listen know more about their students!

5. Teach collaboration.

Those who start to work with others early will use those skills throughout their academic, work, and personal lives. When we regularly model, practice, and assess collaboration, children learn to share the mic, make plans with others, take on a role, and come to solutions together.

6. Treat mistakes as opportunities.

In the old days, perfection got the praise. Then neuroscience showed us that we learn more by risking a mistake. Teachers can instill this mindset early by treating every mistake as an opportunity. That habit develops curious, creative, and motivated learners who will thrive and contribute, regardless of what their futures hold.

Building a Culture of Health

In addition, a number of school-connected programs have emerged to support children's social and emotional skills throughout their school experience. Partner Build Grow, a new action guide from the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, helps administrators, civic leaders, program directors, and other advocates develop plans to maintain and strengthen programs that give children the emotional and behavioral skills they need to thrive.

Because every community is different, the guide lays out a flexible blueprint for success. Built around four main strategies, it includes practical steps for planning such crucial components as who to partner with, how to communicate and promote the program, ways to obtain funding, and how to build an action team.

We share the vision of a culture of health -- one in which all Americans have equal opportunities to live their healthiest lives. To achieve this vision, we must give children the building blocks they need to thrive, today and throughout life. We urge you not only to use these tools for promoting the future of your school's programs, but also to share your perspectives with us as you help to build early social and emotional skills -- one of the most important kinds of support that we can provide to set children up for lifelong health and happiness.

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Jennifer Ng'andu

Working to promote the social and emotional wellbeing of all children and families and to mitigate the effects of violence and trauma.

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Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

Thank you for this. People are starting to understand the importance of social-emotional development but so few people actually know how to do it well. In my current project I've talked with educators on 4 continents and when I ask them about the purpose of education they almost always mention the skills you're talking about here. I recently collected some of their quotes here:

Abigail Pollak's picture
Abigail Pollak
Marketing Assistant

It's important to recognise that social and emotional skills develop over time, and that they may develop differently for different children.

Julie Baron's picture
Julie Baron
Clinical Social Worker, Adolescent Therapist, Former Middle School Counselor, Author

Teaching social and emotional skills is best achieved by modeling these skills in our relationships with students. Research has shown that key skills for adults in helping professions to engage youth are RESPECT, AUTHENTICITY, KINDNESS, PREDICTABILITY AND ACCEPTANCE and that these skills will help lead to change (reaching goals). If adults are going to be effective in teaching SEL they must also possess these skills. We take for granted that these skills do not just come naturally and in fact we must be deliberate in tending to our relationships with the youth we serve.

Chitrakala T Somasundaram's picture

Another important skill associated with the social and emotional skill is the ability to proact to situations rather than reacting to situations. I experience in several instances that it is impossible to refrain from reacting, but have succeeded when I understood that I am facing a situation where I would react rather than proact. The situations where I proact have favoured me with 100% success.


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