Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.'s  picture
Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.
Developmental Psychologist

What Your Child May Not Be Learning

Social and emotional skills are just as important as academic subjects — and may even improve performance in school

Standardized tests have been used for decades to gauge children’s “success” in school. But what about skills other than reading and math — skills that, some might argue, are more important to success, like insight, empathy, and the ability to work with others, tolerate frustration and solve problems?

Years of research have shown that these social and emotional skills can improve learning, memory and the ability to focus, leading to better performance in academic subjects. In addition, these skills can decrease the risk of aggression, violence and depression.

Research around social and emotional learning (SEL) has spurred a number of evidence-based programs that teach these important skills in the classroom.

One such program is Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), co-developed by Mark Greenberg, Ph.D., professor of Human Development and Psychology and director of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State
University, and Carol Kushe, a psychologist and psychoanalyst. “[Our] goal in designing PATHS is to start teaching these life skills early and to build a curriculum that integrates social and emotional learning throughout a child’s career,” says Greenberg.

PATHS curriculum lessons are implemented 20 to 30 minutes a day, three times a week. A sensory motor lesson might involve teaching children how to use the “turtle technique” to calm themselves down when they are upset: Students are taught to draw their arms and legs into their “shell,” take calming breaths, think about a solution, and come out of their shell only when they are calm and ready to act appropriately. Through the use of puppets, pictures, photographs and feeling faces, children are given the vocabulary for expressing feelings to help them solve problems.

Happy-Sad FacesSEL programs can also help with executive function skills, like impulsivity. Games like “Mother May I” and “Red Light, Green Light” teach children inhibitory control, which includes skills like planning ahead, monitoring one’s actions and developing self-control.

After years of study, evidence shows that children who participated in a PATHS program for one year performed significantly higher on tests of self-control, ability to tolerate frustration, social problem-solving skills, conflict-resolution strategies and ability to recognize and understand emotions than those without PATHS instruction. Also, children’s aggression and reports of depression, sadness and anxiety were also reduced.

Another analysis of 213 SEL programs including PATHS found that students who received SEL instruction had more positive attitudes toward school and improved an average of 11 percentile points on standardized achievement tests compared to students who did not receive SEL instruction.

Giving Children Tools to Learn

Dismayed by the increase in school violence and rates of depression and suicide among children, actress Goldie Hawn created the Hawn Foundation and the MindUp program to help children succeed in school. “MindUp is a way for children to actually get in touch with their emotions, to regulate their emotions, to manage their stress,” says Hawn. The SEL framework guiding MindUp was developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). In the program, children actually learn how their brains work and how stress can inhibit learning. Students use breathing and sensory exercises to become more mindful and aware of their feelings and environment.

At P.S. 24 in Brooklyn, New York, teachers use a program called the 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect and Resolution), created by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, to teach social and emotional skills. One lesson involves using “I” messages to communicate and express their feelings: “When I’m angry, I want to yell at people.”

“It’s about giving them the tools they need so they can deal with those emotions so they can focus on the academics,” says Sherley Guerrero, a teacher at P.S. 24, in a PBS Newshour video on SEL.

Just as it is important for children to face challenges, it is important to give them the tools for coping. Notes Greenberg, “Life is challenging emotionally for all of us. Recognizing that and helping children manage their feelings is a big part of helping children learn how to cope and to succeed in life.”

Take a look at what PATHS is all about below.

Video Made Available by: Blueprints for Violence Prevention Initiative, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, University of Colorado at Boulder

Graphs Courtesy of CASEL

Learn More:

“Early Lessons Shape the Brain,” by Elene Bodrova, co-creator of the Tools of the Mind curriculum, which helps children regulate their social, emotional and cognitive behaviors

“Teaching Children to Train Their Minds,” by Kelly Schmitt Gouss, about improving children’s executive function skills

Related Reading:

“Stop. Think. Act. The Rise of Social and Emotional Learning,” a video by Learning Matters for PBS Newshour about how SEL is taught at P.S. 24 in Brooklyn, New York

“Social and Emotional Learning: What is it? How can we use it to help our children?” by Robin Stern, Ph.D., NYU Child Study Center