In 1995 when Emotional Intelligence was published, the field of social and emotional learning, or SEL, was just beginning to evolve. Only a handful of well-designed, school-based SEL programs could be found. In most cases schools had put those programs in place as part of a “war on…” a particular problem, such as reducing dropouts, substance abuse, unwanted teen pregnancies, or school violence. Some of those programs were quite effective. Others yielded disappointing results.
As a William T. Grant Foundation study has revealed, the active ingredients in the programs that worked were largely the same, no matter their ostensible target problem. The best SEL programs were implemented throughout each year of schooling. They shaped the entire school climate, and they used developmentally appropriate lessons. They also taught children specific social-emotional skills like self-awareness, self-management, empathy, perspective taking, and cooperation. In short, they were lessons in emotional intelligence.
In the intervening years, scientific data demonstrating the effectiveness of SEL programs as interventions that help lower the risk of various problems young people face, and that increase their skills in addressing life’s challenges, have been accumulating steadily. But along with the case for SEL as a prevention and promotion strategy, another benefit has emerged: social and emotional learning facilitates academic learning. Thus, it offers a much-needed and very timely aid to schools in fulfilling their main mission.
Why should helping students in the social and emotional realms of their lives enhance their academic learning? If we think back to our school days and remember a teacher we enjoyed, we almost certainly will bring to mind also a classroom environment where we enjoyed learning. From the perspective of neuroscience, that optimal learning environment reflects an internal brain state well attuned for learning.
Most of us have assumed that the kind of academic learning that goes on in school has little or nothing to do with one’s emotions or social environment. Now neuroscience is telling us exactly the opposite. The emotional centers of the brain are intricately interwoven with the neurocortical areas involved in cognitive learning. When a child trying to learn is caught up in a distressing emotion, the centers for learning are temporarily hampered. The child’s attention becomes preoccupied with whatever may be the source of the trouble. Because attention is itself a limited capacity, the child has that much less ability to hear, understand, or remember what a teacher or a book is saying. In short, there is a direct link between emotions and learning.
Multiple research studies reported in this book demonstrate that social and emotional learning programs pave the way for better academic learning. They teach children social and emotional skills that are intimately linked with cognitive development. In the ideal learning environment, children are focused, fully attentive, motivated, and engaged, and enjoy their work. Such a classroom climate can be one benefit of SEL. Similarly, caring relationships with teachers and other students increase students’ desire to learn. School-family partnerships help students to do better. And, students who are more confident in their abilities try harder.
In short, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning presents powerful evidence of the links between SEL and academic learning. It offers schools scientific evidence of the links between SEL and academic learning. It offers schools scientific evidence and pragmatic examples of how SEL programs can enhance students’ success in school and in life. At a time when so many students at so many ages are flooded with anxiety as they struggle to succeed on standardized tests, this is welcome news. Today’s growing emphasis on academic success and school accountability makes SEL programs more relevant— and useful- to schools than ever before. Thus, this groundbreaking book belongs on the shelves of all who are interested in giving students essential tools to succeed.