Should Schools Teach Social Emotional Learning Skills

Should schools teach social emotional learning skills? Photo by Brad Flickinger/Lexie Flickinger

The demands of a 21st century education are incredibly stressful for families and teachers alike. Teaching and assessing the Common Core State Standards — the consistent set of expectations for the skills and content that need to be taught across all schools — now takes up so much of the school day that there is barely enough time to determine whether kids are getting it, let alone for teaching them other content and skills. Kids and parents find that the time spent trying to understand homework takes away from opportunities for engaging and learning through other activities. Learning about and practicing executive functions and social emotional learning (SEL) skills gets lost in the shuffle. So should schools teach social emotional learning and executive function skills? Can they?

The academic rigor and demands that have become the norm in elementary, middle, and high school have now sifted down to kindergarten and pre-K classrooms. Younger children have less time for recess, gym, art, and unstructured play than ever before, meaning they lose many opportunities for the self-directed, active, and creative play that make up the foundation of childhood learning. The sad fact is that there’s not enough room in the schedule to teach, model, and practice the core skills that help younger children with decision-making, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and compassion — non-academic skills that many psychologists and educators believe to be the crucial ingredient for a 21st century education. But most schools are choosing not to teach these skills — not because they don’t think they are important, but because they just don’t have the time.

At LearningWorks for Kids we consider these essential non-academic skills to be part of a larger group of executive functions, or thinking skills. Other experts refer to these skills as social emotional learning (SEL) skills, character skills, grit, social or emotional intelligence, 21st-century skills or the more generic, “soft skills”. There is compelling evidence that teaching these skills to early elementary school students results in dramatic improvements, not only in problem-solving and communication skills, but also in math and reading skills in the middle school years. The data strongly suggest that time spent in early training in executive functions and SEL skills is more effective than academic training for producing later academic success. In other words, taking some time away from a strict regimen of academic teaching in early elementary school to teach core problem-solving and decision-making skills makes for generally smarter kids.

Fortunately, many alternative schools have begun to incorporate the teaching of these soft skills into their basic curriculum. Private and charter schools often have more freedom to teach executive functioning and social emotional learning skills as a part of their own curriculum. At LearningWorks for Kids, we are particularly interested in the ways schools might integrate technology use into development of these soft skills. This is the first of a series on this topic that we hope will inspire schools to take the time and effort necessary to teach these powerful 21st-century skills to their students.

We believe that video games can help kids improve social emotional learning skills. See our playbooks to find games that can help kids improve empathy and self-awareness.


Featured image: Flickr user Brad Flickinger


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