Fostering Well-Being and Social-Emotional Learning Skills

(Image credit: Artem Kniaz on Unsplash)

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not easy to study. 

“All of us in education know it's challenging measuring academic skills; it's even more challenging measuring social-emotional skills,” said Jennifer Adams, who serves on the Executive Committee for Karanga The Global Alliance for Social-Emotional Learning and Life Skills, and is former Superintendent/Director of Education for the English public schools in Ottawa, Canada.

Despite the challenges involved, global research into SEL is improving as is an understanding of its importance and the best practices involved. 

“The topic discussion is becoming more granular and more nuanced. It's moved away from smiley face stickers for everybody to people understanding the science behind it,” said Mark Sparvell, director of marketing education at Microsoft and an advisor to Goldie Hawn's MindUp Foundation. 

Adams and Sparvell, who is also an ambassador for the Emotional Intelligence Society of Australia and founder of the SELinEdu Community, spoke about global research into social-emotional learning during a recent Tech & Learning webinar hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray.  The two focused on highlights from Beyond Academic Learning: First Results from the Survey of Social and Emotional Skills, a global study of SEL from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

View the on-demand version of the webinar here.  

 Key Takeaways  

Social and Emotional Skills Related to Well-Being

The OECD study is one of the first international efforts to collect data from students, parents and educators on the social and emotional skills of learners at age 10 and 15. Survey results were collected from 11 cities in 10 countries. 

“The first and foremost conclusion that the study comes to is that social-emotional skills are strongly related to well-being,” Adams said. “That might seem obvious, but I think it's important that we've got an international study that says this across countries around the world with very different education systems with very different cultures, languages, religions, etc.” 

This intercultural finding highlights the need for schools to do more to support SEL for educators and students, Adams said. 

Other findings include: 

  • SE skills dip in adolescence, particularly for girls
  • Boys reported higher emotional regulation,  sociableness , and energy levels
  • Girls reported higher levels of responsibility, empathy and cooperation
  • Socioeconomically advantaged students reported higher SE skills
  • A competitive school climate and high expectations (teachers/parents) are associated with higher well-being in 10 year olds and higher test anxiety for 10 and 15 year olds
  • Well-being dips as test anxiety increases from 10-15 year olds, especially for girls

Focus on Well Being Rather Than Learning Loss 

The OECD report and a separate Aspen Institute guidance reached similar conclusions around learning loss, Sparvell said. “At the moment, we hear people, schools, and systems talking about learning loss talking about learning interrupted,” he said. “There is maybe an inclination to rush toward more content, more time spent covering curriculum, but both the OECD paper and the Aspen Institute suggest a balanced approach, which carefully considers well-being, particularly emotional well being, as a route toward academic achievement.” 

Adams leads a thought leadership group, which frequently invites education and health experts to talk. “It's very interesting to hear that when those panelists are talking, whether they're from the education system or the mental health sector, they're all saying the exact same thing,” she said. “The advice that they're giving to education, policymakers, and to leaders, is to make sure that we really take care of our students and our staff, and the learning will come as part of that. The knee-jerk reaction to potentially go down that path of trying to catch up is absolutely the wrong approach.” 

Social and Emotional Learning Disparities 

A particularly significant finding of the OECD paper was that socioeconomically advantaged students reported higher social and emotional skills. 

“We know that there is a demonstrated gap based on socio-demographics for academic skills,” Adams said. “What this study has shown is that that gap exists for social-emotional skills. And obviously, during this time with a pandemic, it exacerbated both of those gaps, which really means that as we come back, and we have children coming back into schools, we have to take extra care now that we know more about the gaps and the needs of those vulnerable children.” 

Sparvell said the impact of this disparity could potentially be felt for years. “Those with higher developed social and emotional skills, with greater resilience, with greater ability to put things into perspective, with greater levels of optimism, all of that good social and emotional learning stuff, essentially have got protective factors to allow them to mitigate the harm caused,” Sparvell said. “Yet this research is suggesting those very students who are already more vulnerable through their parents possibly having to physically go to work, through not having potential access to devices and technology, and who are already at risk, are even further at risk if they're not having access to high-quality, social and emotional learning programs.” 

Boosting Academic Achievement By Giving Students Control 

Sparvell shared how Microsoft sponsored The Class of COVID: Lessons of Today and Learnings for Tomorrow, a white paper by Harvard Business Review. For the paper, the team spoke with experts in a variety of fields to develop advice for coming out of the pandemic. 

Sparvell shared highlights from his conversation with John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, and bestselling author of the “Brain Rules” series of books. “He said to me he’s only interested in what he can measure in terms of the brain. And he said that brains are built for stress, they love it. That's what we're designed for. Stress triggers emotions, which then guide behaviors fight, flight, freeze. But the brain hates feeling out of control. When it feels out of control, experiencing stress for prolonged periods, it ceases to operate effectively. It basically starts to freak out.” 

With this in mind, Medina’s advice for educators that Sparvell relayed is: “Be very cognizant about allowing students to have control in remote learning, hybrid learning, or face-to-face learning because in a world that is largely out of their control, they need small pockets of control. So when you hear people talking about voice and choice, and agency, what they're really talking about is, ‘I see you, I hear you, and you matter.’ It calms the stressed brain, and allows learners to engage in deep learning.” 

Sparvell added, “We know that emotions are the gatekeeper of how we think and process information. What drives us to do what we do and motivation, and where we direct our scarcest resource, our attention. So, for learning to be effective, we need to pay very careful attention to the emotional context.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.