Do Our Kids Need Social Emotional Learning in School?

GoodTherapy | Social Emotional Learning

At Harvard Business School one of the most popular electives is a course called “Leadership and Happiness.” This course teaches graduate students seeking an M.B.A life skills such as emotional awareness, the importance of healthy relationships, and the importance of developing “grit” or resilience. This class has been so popular that despite doubling it’s enrollment from 72 to 144, the course still has a waiting list of students who want to take the class, but can’t because it is full. In fact, since it was introduced it has an extensive waiting list (Ellis, 2022).

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence is Recognized

I remember learning about the concept of emotional intelligence my first semester of graduate school for organizational behavior. Emotional intelligence (EI) can be defined as the ability to perceive and manage emotions (Greenberg, 2002). The concept of EI quickly became a predictor of success. Consulting groups formed to provide support for managers and CEOs to develop EI in their employees. Learning how to be emotionally self-aware and have awareness of how others feel is what the most successful employees demonstrate over and over again in competitive work environments (Greenberg, 2002).

Social Emotional Learning Hits the Classroom

Given that the concept of emotional intelligence is such a predictor of success in business, scholars over the years began to discover new ways to teach this concept and began teaching it to younger students as a way to help build resilience, problem-solving skills, and improve relationship skills.  These skills are now being called social emotional learning (SEL) programs in K-12 schools.  Durlak and colleagues (2011) conducted a meta-analysis on schools implementing SEL programs and found that those schools who had implemented SEL programs had an average of 11 percentile point gain on standardized tests. Not only did these schools see an improvement in standardized test scores after implementing SEL programs, but these schools also reported a reduction in conduct problems, bullying, depression, and anxiety.

Taylor and colleagues (2017) conducted a meta-analysis on social emotional learning interventions in schools and how these interventions impacted youths’ subsequent development.  After reviewing hundreds of studies on more than half a million students receiving social emotional learning in schools, the researchers found that after a follow up period of 1-3 years, students who learned SEL skills in school had improved academic performance, positive attitudes, prosocial behaviors, and higher well-being.  The results indicate that these SEL skills were associated with significant improvement in students’ long-term adjustment.

Our Children’s Post-Pandemic Mental Health Epidemic

Since the onset of the pandemic, the need to address children’s mental health has become increasingly important.  Anxiety is a problem for our youth and can start as early as 7 years old (Anderer, 2019). In addition, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in our country.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide deaths have increased by 50% amongst teenage girls ages 12-17 in 2020 compared to the rates of suicide deaths in 2019 (Smith-Schoenwalder, 2021).  One possible explanation for this increase in suicide amongst teenagers is the use of smartphones and increased social isolation (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). According to Pipher and Gilliam (2019) young adults also lack the ability to solve their own problems, and often rely on their parents to solve their problems for them.

So how can Social Emotional Learning help our children to develop skills that will carry them into adulthood?  SEL takes a strengths-based approach to in promoting positive development by improving children’s’ self-control, interpersonal skills and problem-solving skills.  Specifically, SEL enhances behavioral competencies considered to be important in school and life (Taylor et al., 2017). The list below includes these competencies.

  1. Self-Awareness: recognizing emotions, strengths, limitations and personal values.
  2. Self-Management: regulating emotions and behaviors
  3. Social Awareness: Empathizing with others and other perspective taking
  4. Relationship Skills: How to establish and maintain healthy relationships
  5. Responsible Decision Making: Making good choices across different situations.

As our children learn to navigate a changing world of new technologies, global health crises, and civil unrest in our nation and others, we as a society must learn to respond with helpful tools to navigate new waters.  Social emotional learning interventions in schools do just that, and the research suggests that the SEL skills taught in school interventions stay with students well into adulthood.

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Anderer, J. (2019, November 5). Majority of children regularly battling anxiety: ‘Possibly most stressed generation ever.’ Retrieved from

Ellis, L. (2022, February 14). Seeking happiness? Harvard offers tips. Retrieved from:

Greenberg, J. (2002) Managing behavior in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Pipher, M. & Gilliam, S. P. (2019, August 15). The lonely burden of today’s teenage girls. Retrieved from

Smith-Schoenwalder, C. (2021, June 11). CDC study documents rise in adolescent suicide attempts during pandemic. Retrieved from:

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 12, 271-283.




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  • Roger

    June 22nd, 2022 at 3:07 PM

    100% our kids nowadays tend not to have much social skills many or introverted no one goes outside no one house how to relate with their issues their problems their struggles they hold it in and they become a mess I think it’s a great idea to be teaching them how to look for signs in their friends and themselves that they are struggling with emotional issues. dysmorphia inability to be social lack of friends lack of interests depression all of it needs to be talked about

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