Social Emotional Learning: Why Does it Matter?

This series of Social-Emotional articles is written by Victoria Kirgesner

In our last post, we talked about what social-emotional learning is. Today, we’ll dive into an arguably more important discussion: why it matters and why it’s crucial for student success. 

Think back, if you will, to your favorite year of school and your favorite teacher. What did you learn that year? And more importantly, why is that person your favorite teacher? Chances are that you didn’t love that particular educator because of the content they taught, but because of the way they taught, and how they made you feel in their classroom.

How we interact with each other and the emotional bonds form are extremely lasting. Emotions especially are extremely salient. This is why everyone who was alive on 9/11 can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news. Strong emotions leave a lasting impression.

 Why Social-Emotional Learning

As the 2020-2021 school year dawned, it became increasingly clear to me that we weren’t going to be able to go “back to normal;” it was going to be the year of the COVID-19 part 2, (as I referred to it in my planner). During the summer of last year, I found myself wondering how much I’d really be able to cover with students learning remotely and in the classroom, how we all would still be dealing with the stress of the unknown as things were returning to “normal” while still in abnormal situations.

How we had to carry on with business as usual while we were learning in a format that was anything but. And then I realized something that would continue to guide my pedagogy for the remainder of the year: what my students would remember from this year wasn’t going to be the Latin work we did, but they’d remember how I handled everything, how I made them feel, and the energy that I brought to our shared space. 

Feel Good Fridays

Thus, I started our school year with “pared down” expectations. I knew we weren’t going to be able to cover everything, so I let the students tell me which units they wanted to learn, assuming if they felt a sense of ownership in our curriculum then they would start at an increased level of buy-in, crucial when students needed to practice self-management skills in a greater autonomous capacity than before. Fridays per our schedule started as an all-virtual day, so in January, I turned these into “Feel Good Fridays” where I would ask students to talk about what had gone well this past week, what kind of stunk this week, and then a random question like “if you had any superpower, what would it be” or “tell me about your weekend plans.”

Even when we switched to all in-person (minus the all-virtual students I still had in my classroom), I kept these Feel Good Fridays. The idea behind them was to give the students a place to share, and the knowledge that there was a human on the other side of that form listening to them and providing feedback. I wouldn’t evaluate or judge their responses, but I would find something they had said and respond to it, letting the students know that they weren’t just “screaming into the void,” that an adult was listening to what they had to say and engaging them in a conversation about themselves. Some students responded to my responses, and others didn’t. And always, the students were told to only share what they felt comfortable with because that comfort level will absolutely differ from person to person.

Sometimes TikTok’s Okay

As the semester came to a close, I found myself wondering if my students found this time helpful or just a waste of time. They would finish the surveys early in class and then have time to catch up on work for my class or any others, or just kind of exist. Part of me bristled at this. The students were there to learn…so was it productive to do this? Did they hate me for wasting their time? Honestly, no.

So many of my students told me the forms were helpful in letting them reflect on the good and the bad in the week and become more aware of themselves as humans and what was happening. They called them “therapeutic.” They appreciated that I gave them a platform on which to share their thoughts, and time to work on things they needed. I knew many of my students worked and had other activities in their life, and they could recognize that Fridays were as light as they were because I knew that their lives were full of priorities. Did it give a student the ability to watch TikTok instead of working? Yeah, probably. But sometimes that’s okay. That’s Social-Emotional learning.

Anixety and Depression in Teens

Several studies have shown that rates of anxiety and depression have steadily increased as we’ve moved through the 21st century, and that has continued to increase throughout the pandemic. According to the CDC, 7.1% of children between the ages of 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety; 3.2% in that same age group have been diagnosed with depression, and 7.9% have been diagnosed with a behavior disorder.

When we turn to look at rates of anxiety, the numbers can be shocking. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 1 in 3 teenagers will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their adolescent lives; the rate of teens affected by anxiety disorders has risen 20% between 2007 and 2012. In a Gallup poll from May 2020, 3 out of 10 parents reported that their child(ren) were suffering from severe harm to their mental and emotional health, and even more described less severe damage, but damage nonetheless. So…we know our children are struggling. This isn’t really new news. But what can we do?

Social-Emotional Competencies

This is where social-emotional learning comes into play. As we discussed in the last post, SEL emphasizes various skills and abilities that allow the learner to be better in tune with their emotional states, how this can affect their behaviors, and provides the learner with the understanding that they are a valued member of several communities. Decades of psychological research tell us that being part of a group or a community does wonders for our overall mental well-being as humans (see this study from the Alzheimer’s Association linking loneliness and isolation to increased rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia). This was the driving thought behind my Friday forms I discussed above: provide the students with a sense of belonging and it would help them overall.

SEL provides numerous benefits for children, whether they are preschool-aged or part of the K-12 system. It provides a bedrock upon which to build future learning. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy (if you’re not familiar with this pyramid, you can find it here). In this theory, the lower needs must be met before the upper-level ones can be realized. The tip of the pyramid is self-actualization, or reaching one’s fullest potential and creative ability. Much of the academic knowledge learned in school would fall here, and so it is crucial that the lower levels are met. SEL provides a means of delivery for these lower levels: relationships, sense of belonging, and even safety. 

Heal the Heart Heal the Mind

But even beyond providing a foundation for learning, SEL provides other benefits for children. According to a study done by Durlak and others in 2011, providing students with access to SEL education increased their academic achievement by 11 percentile points, drove an increase in “prosocial behaviors” (think – a reduction in behavior plans!), reduced rates of student depression and stress, and increased student attitudes towards school. I don’t know about you, but I always found it a lot easier to teach the students who wanted to be there and were happy about being in school than those who weren’t!

But the benefits of SEL don’t stop there. It contributes to overall student success by providing them with the tools and resources they need to better manage their actions and emotions. These tools help them to make decisions about themselves and others that are based on facts rather than simply knee-jerk reactions. Students are able to understand the viewpoints of others and be able to relate to them and interact effectively. Thus one can also see a myriad of positive consequences from SEL instruction.

Students are able to feel more positively about themselves, others, and their schools, but they are also able to form more positive bonds with adults in their schools, which as we know leads to further success and connectedness. WIth SEL instruction, risk-taking and behavior problems decrease, as does students’ emotional distress, leading to increased test scores, grades, attendance, and achievement. Truly in today’s world of standardized testing, who doesn’t want a boost to your students’ test scores?

Building a Positive Environment

Thus far, I’ve provided a large amount of qualitative data on the importance of SEL and the benefits that it can bring to your students, but many of these benefits have been quantified. According to the Committee for Children, there was a 5-12% decrease in the drop-out rates at schools where SEL curricula had been implemented and a 13% increase in academic achievement. This clearly quantifies the arguments presented earlier: SEL increases student success and connectedness within the larger school community. Students who feel part of the large collective tend not to want to drop out. 

The benefits, however, don’t stop at student achievement, which we’ve been discussing at length. The Committee for Children reports students were 42% less likely to become involved in “physical aggression” and that schools with an SEL program saw a 20% decrease in bullying by students with disabilities. This all adds to the creation of a positive school environment, which continues to help students feel positively about their school, and even educators and administration to feel more satisfied in their jobs. I know the years where behavior problems began to spiral out of control were some of the years where I found it the hardest to feel positively about my work. 

Model Success

Finally, think about your own experiences as an adult. How often do you use any of the five SEL competencies (self-management, social awareness, self-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making) in your everyday lives? The skills taught through SEL are not simply used within the school classroom. It is one of those things that can be taught in school that has direct real-world applications, and one that will honestly help to advance society. The Committee for Children states that 79% of employers say that SEL skills are the most important for success at their company.

Thus we can see that social-emotional learning is one of the necessary tools to add to our students’ arsenals to help them be able to achieve the career success they want and to lead successful adult lives. The Committee for Children summarizes it best when they say “children thrive. Schools win. Workplaces benefit. Society strengthens. All due to social-emotional learning.” Do you want your teaching to last beyond a lifetime and be the teacher that students remember fondly? Add social-emotional learning into your curriculum. Show them that they are more than another body to wander into your classroom. Foster connections and plant the seeds of awareness and connection that will last for the rest of your students’ lives, creating the lasting impression that every district and educator wants to leave on their students.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, by now you’ve been convinced that social-emotional learning is essential to add to your lessons and curriculum. But…how can you do that? In the next post, we’ll discuss why STEM is a natural vehicle through which educators can teach SEL skills. Truly whether you’re teaching computer science, robotics, engineering, or any other of a number of STEM topics, SEL will enhance your curriculum and allow for increased buy-in, whether they are learning remotely or in-person, toddlers or K-12 students. As I’ve mentioned in my last post, SEL is the very model of cross-disciplinary education and a field that spans not only all other academic subjects but is effective and easily implemented across all ages. 

Victoria Kirgesner Social Emotional Learning Coding and Robotics

Georgetown University graduate, Victoria Kirgesner, has been a Latin educator since 2015, teaching both in traditional settings and more. She is a passionate educator, and forever linguist. Her academic background informs her research and exploration and became finding the best EdTech tools to reach all of her students based on their interests, passions, and backgrounds. She spends many hours giving life advice to her students, while also teaching them. Her favorite part about her career has been helping her students navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood. All of these hats culminate in her ability to connect with colleagues nationwide, improving education for all.