October 23, 2018
Should Schools Teach Emotional Skills?

Should Schools Teach Emotional Skills?

by Peter Jaret  

Vicki Zakrzewski, PhD, is education director of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches other educators how to promote skills in the classroom that encourage empathy and compassion in children. Here, she discusses why social and emotional skills are crucial to a child’s development and academic success.

First, what exactly are emotional and social skills?

We’re talking about the skills that are required to effectively manage a person’s emotional and social life. Over the past several decades, we’ve come to understand that these are skills that can be taught and fostered, and that they have a strong impact on learning, social interaction, healthy relationships, and happiness.

What are some examples of emotional or social skills?

In the context of early education, one of the categories is self awareness, which is being aware of your emotions, being able to recognize them and understand them. The next category is self management—knowing what to do when you feel angry or scared, for instance, and having techniques like deep breathing or taking a walk to relax and control your emotional responses. Then we move into the realm of relationships with other people—being aware of other people’s emotional responses, feeling empathy, and developing skills like active listening and conflict resolution. The goal is to cultivate healthy, positive relationships and responsible decision-making.

In the past, children learned these skills just by being in school. Why do you think they now need to be taught?

The big change is that we now have good scientific research on emotions, which we didn’t have before. The research really started in the early 1970s, with Richard Davidson, PhD, one of the pioneers in the field of emotional intelligence. Scientists had paid little attention to emotions until he and other researchers began studying people’s emotional lives and how they impact learning and development. Emotions help people navigate the world of relationships, work, decision-making, and really everything we do. We’ve also come to understand more about what leads to anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems. Finally, I think, we’ve discovered that there are specific skills and strategies that can help children and adults better manage their emotional lives.

Has the world children grow up in today changed, in terms of social and emotional skills?

It has changed, of course. Children now grow up with technologies that previous generations couldn’t have imagined, such as smart phones and tablets, and those technologies have changed the way children interact and socialize. Also, school is very different. The academic pressures on children today are so much more intense. In the most recent survey by the American College Health Association, about one in five undergraduates reported feelings of hopelessness during the previous 12 months. More than 60 percent reported feeling very lonely. More than one in three had felt so depressed that it was difficult for them to function.

That tells you how much stress some of these young adults are feeling. Some of them are struggling to live up to very intense academic expectations. Some have come from backgrounds with economic uncertainty, neglect, even abuse and trauma. Whatever their situation, the emotional problems they are reporting in college didn’t start then. They are part of a long trajectory that goes back to early childhood. The goal of teaching emotional and social skills is to help children, from an early age, lead healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives.

Can the benefits of teaching emotional skills be objectively measured?

In terms of outcomes, we have a lot of evidence that teaching emotional and social skills can be effective. In 2011, researchers at Loyola University and the University of Illinois looked at looked at 213 programs teaching social and emotional learning in schools around the country. Their meta-analysis showed that academic performance scores were 11 percentile points higher among children who received social and emotional learning instruction than among children who did not. Children who were enrolled in social and emotional learning programs behaved better in school, were more committed to school and learning, and experienced less emotional distress in the form of anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal.

An organization called the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, has reviewed the literature and come up with core competencies and standards to make sure that programs teaching these skills use evidence-based methods. CASEL maintains a list of programs that have applied and met their review standards.

How do these programs measure success?

Academic success is one key measure. But the programs also look at positive behaviors, such as increased time devoted to schoolwork and increased motivation. They also look to see if there is a decline in negative behaviors, such as aggression and disciplinary referrals. And they measure the prevalence of depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal. Across all of those measures, the research shows, children who are taught social and emotional skills fare better.

How are emotional skills taught?

In preschool and kindergarten level programs, children might be taught to recognize emotions like anger, sadness, and happiness by looking at drawings of faces. Then they might be encouraged to talk about what happens, how they feel, when they are sad or angry. Children can be taught ways to pause and control their emotions. There are also a variety of different models for teaching conflict resolution. Some recent research has looked at the benefits of teaching mindfulness meditation—a focus on the present moment—to young children as a way to help them improve their attention and focus. A program called Toolbox, which is being used at a number of schools around the country, teaches a list of social and emotional skills that include how to let little things go, how to forgive, how to understand the value of patience, and how to speak up for yourself.

Social and emotional learning programs are new enough that we’re still learning how to best implement them. One thing we’ve come to realize is that you have to start by teaching the adults. The more that teachers develop their own social-emotional skills, the more effectively they teach them to students. And you have to make sure the programs take into account cultural diversity. CASEL is currently working with eight large urban school districts around the country, so we’ll learn more about the best ways to introduce these programs.

Many school districts are coping with tight budgets. Can we justify adding programs for social and emotional skills?

The simplest argument is the bottom line. According to a recent study by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, social and emotional learning programs in schools result in $11 worth of benefits for every dollar spent. Their study focused on six popular interventions in classroom ranging from kindergarten to grade 12. While that number is impressive, I think it’s also important to focus on the less quantifiable benefits in terms of healthy young people who can realize their full potential in relationships, careers, friendships—in every part of their lives. We are convinced that social and emotional learning programs provide children with skills and strategies they can use to effectively navigate virtually every part of their lives, throughout their lives.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the Editorial Board at BerkeleyWellness.com.