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Busting the myths about social and emotional learning


18 Mar 2015

Significant new research commissioned by the Early Intervention Foundation has shown that social and emotional skills in childhood are better predictors of adult life satisfaction than are childhood cognitive skills, and just as good predictors of adult health, wealth and employability.

The research has also demonstrated that social and emotional skills can be taught in school settings, and that well implemented social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes can deliver a range of positive outcomes – including improved academic attainment.

At the same time, the researchers found that primary schools struggle to find even half an hour a week for such programmes, and that by secondary school, SEL in the curriculum has ‘all but disappeared’.

Let’s hope policy-makers heed the mismatch between what the evidence suggests should matter in education and what actually happens on the ground, and decide to build the development of SEL competences into the regulatory and accountability frameworks for schools. But first we may need to dispel some myths about SEL.

Myth 1 says that SEL skills, unlike academic outcomes, are too soft to be measured. This myth needs to be challenged because robust measures involving pupil, teacher and parents report (360° feedback) do already exist –  some with  a ’problem’ focus,  like theStrengths and Difficulties Questionnaires, and others with a positive competency-based focus, like the standardised emotional literacy assessment from GL Assessment or the online tool fromEDI.

Myth 2 says SEL development should not be part of schools’ core business. It belongs, according to this theory, to the voluntary sector or uniformed services, or within extra-curricular activities. I’m reminded here, though, of something Professor Charles Desforges once said: ‘From the learner’s point of view, if educational change does not happen in classrooms then it does not happen’. This is teachable stuff and classrooms are where pupils learn.

Myth 3 says that we don’t know what SEL teaching looks like. We do. Look in my paper If… Kipling, character and schools, or my chapter in Demos’ Character Enquiry for some brief examples. Look here if you want the full works!

Myth 4 says that since the majority of children and young people will acquire essential SEL capabilities in the home and community, work in schools should be restricted to remedial teaching for the minority who have not had the appropriate opportunity to learn outside school. But what about the privileged, well-nurtured young people whom student counsellors at top universities are increasingly concerned about today, who ‘arrive apparently confident, with four or five As at A-level, but lacking resilience, lacking the ability to cope if they do not get great success’.  What about the 25% rise in self-harm in young people, which is not confined to the less well-off? What about the need that all young people have to learn about peer pressure and to practice the assertiveness skills that will able them to withstand risky behaviours in adolescence?

Myth 5 is that SEL is all about grit, motivation and resilience. Yes, the best SEL programmes do teach children how to set goals and work towards them, persist in the face of difficulties, bounce back after failure.  I have been willing, over the years, to dress up SEL in whatever clothes it needs to wear if it is to be seen as acceptable, and these gritty character skills are the current fashion. True, they are important skills, and they certainly help kids pass exams. But in the words of SEL guru Roger Weissberg, ‘We need education which enables children and young people to not just to succeed in tests, but succeed in the test of life’. And what drove me in previous work to implement a national SEL framework for schools went way beyond grit. For me, what mattered what the aspects of SEL that teach children to be kinder to one another, to build relationships, to resolve conflicts, to refrain from violence in all its forms. Apart from natural disasters, the very worst things that happen to people are caused by violence, by our inability to see others’ perspectives, to feel for and with them.

So please, could we agree to put the development of empathy at the heart of SEL when it next emerges from the changing room onto the policy catwalk?

About the author

Jean Gross CBE

Jean is an EIF associate.