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Higher Achievement? Better Jobs? Social and Emotional Learning Might Be the Ticket

“The survival of the human race depends at least as much on the cultivation of social and emotional intelligence as it does on the development of technical knowledge and skills.”

Linda Darling Hammond, President, California State Board of Education

There are so many positive outcomes associated with social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools that it’s hard to neatly list them. Yet many people outside the education field don’t know what SEL is. As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL “is the process through which children, youth, and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” In other words, instead of following the traditional, strictly academic curriculum taught in most of our nation’s schools, SEL aims to educate the whole person, through integrated academic, social, and emotional training, preparing students to thrive in our increasingly complex society.

Extensive research has shown that when SEL is incorporated into school curricula, students exhibit greater well-being and achieve better school performance. According to a meta‐analysis of 213 controlled studies of school‐based, universal SEL programs involving more than 270,000 K–12 students, those who participated in SEL programs demonstrated an 11-percentile-point gain in academic performance. Another study found a significant relation between students’ social emotional skills in kindergarten and their outcomes 13–19 years later. Those students with early prosocial skills were more likely to graduate from high school on time, complete a college degree, and achieve and maintain full-time employment. Once SEL and its benefits are explained to educators and parents, there are very few skeptics.

Students and Teachers Support SEL

“One senior said his parents quit school in ninth grade, and he was destined to do the same. ‘Throughout school I was the kid who was always sent to the principal, always getting referrals.’ Then came Austin High, where he was introduced to SEL. Now his grades place him in the top 2 percent of his graduating class, and he’s been accepted to at least a half dozen colleges. ‘I want to be an aeronautical engineer,’ he said shyly.” –Victoria Clayton, “The Psychological Approach to Educating Kids”

A growing body of evidence suggests that the personal and interpersonal competencies fostered in SEL programs provide a crucial foundation for success in school, work, and relationships as adults. More and more, educators agree that the question is not whether social and emotional learning should be taught but how to overcome the challenges of incorporating SEL into existing academic instruction throughout students’ education. How do we provide training and professional development, avoid overburdening educators with more work, and allocate time and financial resources for SEL implementation? A grand shift in pedagogical thinking is required.

In a nationally representative survey of teachers of pre-K–12 students, 93 percent of participants said they believe SEL should be an important part of the in-school experience. They recognize, based on research and their own experience, that social and emotional learning improves grades and standardized test scores and boosts high school and college graduation rates. They’ve observed that students who are supported in developing social and emotional competencies get better and higher paying jobs. They affirm that SEL increases the general well-being of students. Despite these testimonials, aside from a handful of districts nationwide, SEL has not been formally or systemically implemented in most schools.

SEL Skills in Demand

We know that there is demand for the skills that SEL develops. As stated in a report from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, “social, emotional, and academic capacities are increasingly demanded in the American workplace, which puts a premium on the ability to work in diverse teams, to grapple with difficult problems, and to adjust to rapid change.” There is a growing divide between the skills twenty-first century employers seek and the abilities of current graduates in the job market. In a survey of 704 employers conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, “half of those surveyed said they had trouble finding recent graduates to fill vacancies in their companies; even though applicants had the technical prowess, they lacked the communication, adaptability, decision-making, and problem-solving skills needed to do the job.” As reported by Forbes, the National Association of Colleges and Employers asked hiring managers at large companies like IBM what skills they prioritize in new hires. Their answers were clear: the ability to work well on a team; to make decisions and solve problems; to plan, organize, and prioritize work; and to communicate effectively.

Measurable Benefits of SEL

While there is no shortage of will on the part of school leaders and teachers to make social and emotional learning an integral part of their educational mission, finding the way—through training and funding—can present significant roadblocks. Nevertheless, there is evidence that with systematic implementation, the payoffs are substantial. In a study titled The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning, cost-benefit analysis showed an excellent return on investment for six evidence-based SEL programs. While acknowledging the challenge of converting social and emotional benefits into monetary gains, this study was able to show measurable economic benefits that exceeded costs for these programs. Research evidence consistently finds strong associations between self-esteem and earnings. In a Journal of Economic Psychology paper cited in this study, the authors estimate that a “one standard deviation increase in [self-reported] self-esteem leads to a 30.46% increase in real wages.” In addition, studies show a direct correlation between educational attainment and earnings. Using shadow pricing estimates of the monetary value of graduating from high school or completing college, which are both more likely for students who participate in SEL programs, achievement gains can be translated into present-value financial benefits in terms of higher earnings. In addition to the widely recognized academic, social, workplace, and economic benefits of SEL for all students, advocates also point out that “SEL practices could be highly effective when it comes to closing the achievement gap, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by furnishing underserved populations with the critical foundational skills necessary to succeed in higher education and the workplace.”

SEL Is Fundamental to Education

The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development has recently released several reports and guides for educators and policy makers with detailed recommendations for how states and school districts can implement SEL. As stated in their 2019 culminating report, “The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the ‘real work’ of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed.” The data make clear that the era of false choices in education must come to an end. Not unlike the movement to integrate humanities with the sciences in higher education, advocacy for SEL recognizes that cognitive function is not separate from emotional intelligence but inextricably intertwined and mutually beneficial. To serve our students and our society, schools can no longer choose between chemistry and character, and they must recognize the overlap of IQ and emotional intelligence. As Joan Duffell, the executive director of Committee for Children (CFC), a global nonprofit that’s been championing SEL in preschool, elementary, and middle schools, argues, “SEL empowers students to become more engaged citizens. SEL is not only fundamental to education, but it’s fundamental to raising citizens who actually participate in democratic life.”


Photo by Bruce Mars via Pexels

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