Some Big News About Learning

Here’s a sneak preview of some headlines that you’ll see in the next few months: teaching kids to be more emotionally and socially competent boosts their academic achievement. More precisely, when schools offer students programs in social and emotional learning, their achievement scores gain around 11 percentile points.

In the era of No Child Left Behind, where schools are rated on how well their students score on these tests, that’s a huge advantage for individual students and schools alike. And the gains are biggest in “at risk” kids, the bottom ten percent who are most likely to fail in their education.

That’s what the lead story in Education Week for December 19, 2007, [] tells us – and what I heard at a recent forum held in New York City by the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning. Roger Weissberg, the outfit’s director, gave a preview of a massive study he’s just completed, based on an analysis of evaluations done on more than 233,000 students across the country. Social/emotional learning (SEL), in short, helps students in every way.

That meta-analysis revealed that students improved on every measure of positive behavior, like classroom discipline, liking school, and attendance – and went down on rates for every anti-social index, from bullying and fights to suspensions and substance abuse. What’s more, there was a drop in numbers of students who were depressed, anxious, and alienated. And all these gains were in as impressive a range as those for academic achievement.

While at the Forum I had the pleasure of once again interviewing George Lucas, whose main philanthropic efforts focus on schools through the George Lucas Educational Foundation. George’s vision for the future of education sees SEL as vital to a world where technology will be so much more pervasive; as computers take over teaching raw knowledge to kids, they will have more time to help students with motivation, cooperation, and other elements of emotional intelligence. George and I (who come from neighboring towns in California’s Central Valley), have explored the ways schooling will morph in the future, and the key role SEL will play in the classroom, in an audio CD.

Teaching students skills like self-awareness, managing distressing emotions and empathy makes them better learners, as Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, explained at the forum. He pointed to data showing that when the brain’s centers for distress are activated, they impair the functioning of the prefrontal areas for memory, attention and learning (a point I made in Chapter 19 of Social Intelligence). Social and emotional learning makes great sense, Davidson argues, because of neuroplasticity – the fact that repeated experiences shape the brain. The more a child practices self-discipline, empathy and cooperation, the stronger the underlying circuits become for these essential life skills.

4 thoughts on “Some Big News About Learning

  1. Thanks for the great post.

    I am involved with an initiative setting up maritime high school programs for at risk youth in the US and internationally. Among other pedagogies, we use a significant experiential education component via sail training. We believe that putting adolescents in a safe but alien and challenging environment and pushing responsibility and decision-making to them as quickly as possible helps them develop emotional intelligence and leadership qualities during a very important transformative period of their lives.

    Long ago, I was a product of such a program and recently set up a website to capture the experiences that my shipmates and other graduates got from sail training. (

    I’ve learned much from your books and enjoy your blog. Thanks for contributing to my personal and professional development! 😉

    Fair Winds,
    Peter A. Mello
    Director of Institutional Advancement
    Northeast Maritime Institute
    Fairhaven, MA, USA

  2. Perhaps you need to talk about the research that shows minimal relationship between EI and academic performance. eg Australian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 60, No. 1, May 2008, pp. 10 – 17.

  3. Hello there. I recently attended your appearance in Vancouver BC. I was especially interested in the discussion around neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to learn and re-learn emotional cues and to respond appropriately.
    Someone asked a question about how this knowledge could chage the way we work with autistic children or those with FASD. It sparked lots of questions for me.
    I work with offenders, some of whom have FASD or have been diagnosed with psychopathy. Can you comment effective programmes or interactions that can promote the development of social responsibility?

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