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The benefits of social emotional learning

Published on Psychology Today

Most parents are concerned about how their children are doing in school. We want our kids to do their homework, go to class, study, and eventually establish some kind of career, either it be through college or learning some kind of specialty skill. To help them along the way, some parents help their kids with their homework, hire tutors, or even give rewards for good grades. What parents usually don’t think to do to make sure their kids have academic success is ask them how they are feeling, checking in on their friendships, and making sure they are building social skills. However, despite our focus more on academics than on emotional development, it turns out that emotional intelligence can be just as important for academic success as our traditional measures of intelligence. Some studies have even suggested that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of school achievement than IQ (Goleman, 2005).


These days most researchers and practitioners don’t necessarily refer to social emotional skills as emotional intelligence, but instead, typically use the term social emotional learning (SEL). Social emotional learning is the process of acquiring the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions, take the perspective of others, establish and maintain positive social relationships, and handle interpersonal situations with competence. Why would this be helpful in school? Well if a child can’t establish good personal relationships, they may not fare well with their peers or even with their teachers. They don’t necessarily know how to handle their emotional responses to failure or a bad grade, or cope with a fight with a friend. This doesn’t make school a happy place, or a place that is necessarily conducive to learning.


Empathy is often placed at the center of social emotional learning and is something that is thought to have some kind of genetic basis. One study looking at empathy among identical and fraternal twins reported that 42-55% of the variability in empathetic responses to a distressed adult could be accounted for by genetic factors. Importantly, however, this isn’t consistent across the lifespan. At 14 months, there was no genetic effect for empathy at all; at 24 months genetics accounted for 25% of empathetic responses, and got higher as the children got older (Knafo et al., 2008). But that doesn’t mean that social emotional skills like empathy can’t be learned. In fact, research suggests that SEL can be taught, modeled, and practiced effectively.


First, it can be modeled at home. One study reported that practice role playing and role switching enhanced altruism in 6-year-old boys (Iannotti, 1978). In another study of high schoolers, mothers who had a nonpunitive, nonrestrictive, egalitarian, parenting style, set high standards for their kids, and encouraged kids to talk about their problems, were the most likely to have highly empathetic boys (Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen, 1978).


Social emotional skills can also be modeled in schools, which is why many schools across the U.S. have begun to implement universal SEL programs as part of their curricula. In participating schools, research suggests that SEL programs can improve achievement scores on tests, GPAs, attendance rates, positive behaviors, and reduce misbehavior, disciplinary actions, and suspensions (Goleman, 2005). Likewise, in a study that analyzed 213 school based SEL programs involving over 270,000 students from kindergarten through high school, researchers reported that SEL programs effectively improved students’ emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and even found an 11 percentile increase in academic performance (Durlak et al., 2011)


Altogether, this research suggests that even though some social emotional skills like empathy might have a genetic basis, they can certainly be taught, and they can change over time. So if you’re worried about how your child is doing in school, besides just thinking about homework, maybe it’s time to start thinking about how modeling emotional skills might help kids cope better with the social pressures of the school day. After all, going to school isn’t just about learning math and reading, it’s also about learning to be socially responsible, how to handle difficult emotions, and how to interact competently with both peers and with teachers. So even if social emotional skills don’t necessarily help solve that difficult algebra problem, they might help your child deal with the frustration and potential anxiety that it causes, and the social (and sometimes very public) consequences of that struggle, which can be more than half the battle.

Photo by Jessica Lucia/Flickr



Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child development82(1), 405-432.


Eisenberg-Berg, N., & Mussen, P. (1978). Empathy and moral development in adolescence. Developmental psychology14(2), 185.


Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Dell, New York: New York.


Iannotti, R. J. (1978). Effect of role-taking experiences on role taking, empathy, altruism, and aggression. Developmental Psychology14(2), 119.


Knafo, A., Zahn-Waxler, C., Van Hulle, C., Robinson, J. L., & Rhee, S. H. (2008). The developmental origins of a disposition toward empathy: Genetic and environmental contributions. Emotion8(6), 737.


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