Why Social-Emotional Learning Belongs in School Curriculums

Social-emotional learning (SEL) helps young people acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to identify and manage emotions.

Why Social-Emotional Learning Belongs in School Curriculums

COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused a mental health crisis. Young people, especially today’s Black and Hispanic youth, have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with reports showing increased levels of depression, anxiety, stress, distress, and substance use.

Despite this, young people have historically shown that they feel they are leaving high school without the tools needed to experience success in college. Sixty percent of students report that they wish they had more help with emotional preparation. This is further compounded for students with existing mental health disorders.

As a mental health professional, I believe that departments of education should reserve funds to develop and infuse long-term, mandatory, and sustainable social-emotional learning classes into the day-to-day fabric of the required school curriculum and culture.

Schools are often the first line in recognizing signs of mental illness, suicidality and substance use problems among students. They should also be on the front line of mental illness prevention efforts.

The case for social-emotional learning

Social-emotional learning (SEL) involves a set of processes through which young people acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to identify, comprehend, regulate, process, and manage emotions, to set and achieve goals, to feel and show empathy for others, to manage stress and anxiety, to establish, navigate, and maintain positive and healthy relationships, to develop resiliency and self-awareness and to make responsible and thoughtful decisions. In short, these skills allow young people to better navigate their emotional experience, make friends, resolve conflicts, avoid engaging in high-risk behaviors and make ethical and safe choices.

Studies consistently show that students who participate in dedicated SEL programming see greater gains in SEL competencies and academic performance relative to those who did not. In one 2018 study, young participants participating in a social-emotional learning program showed significantly more positive outcomes with respect to enhanced social-emotional skills, attitudes, positive social behavior and academic performance than control students, and significantly lower levels of conduct problems and emotional distress. The SEL program participants also saw an 11 percentile-point gain in achievement, suggesting that SEL programs can bolster, rather than detract from, students’ academic success.

Overall, SEL learning, and programs are associated with better attitudes about self, school, and others, decreased alcohol and drug use, violence, truancy, bullying, impulsivity and conduct problems, and heightened college retention, physical health, stress management, self-esteem, emotion regulation, decision making and empathy.

What needs to be done?

As they have for thousands of years, young people will continue to learn their ABCs, they will learn that a2 + b2 = c2, how to write a topic sentence and basic trigonometric functions. What has been largely ignored, however, and what is needed now more than ever, is special attention to the social and emotional learning needs of students. These skills not only set kids up for success educationally, but also vocationally, socially, romantically, and in their communities at large.

There is no reason schools should not also be on the front line of providing invaluable social and emotional skill-building support, especially during a time when mental health resources are scarce. Opting into mental wellness for today’s young people should not be optional.

Written by Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW.

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