The mental health struggles of the most recent wave of adolescents have gotten an unfortunate amount of media coverage, as the media draws our attention to the way that untreated anxiety and depression lays the groundwork for a large amount of pain and violence on high school and college campuses. When we reflect on these harsh realities, we tend to focus on the immediate action we can take to heal those immediately suffering. But how do we go about preventing anxiety and depression for those who are not yet hurting? How do we ensure that elementary school kids now don’t grow up to face the same problems teenagers are facing today? The answer may lie in a new educational movement that integrates social and emotional learning (S.E.L) courses into elementary school curricula. By teaching children “a process through which people become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully to others,” we set students up to better understanding the importance of being relational and connecting positively to others as they grow older.
Julie Scelfo, writing for the New York Times, recently investigated how learning to properly deal with emotions at a young age can lead to greater success in adulthood and how S.E.L courses help promote that success. Proponents of the theory claim that “unless emotions are properly dealt with […], children won’t be able to reach full academic potential.” In order to deal with an academic environment fraught with challenges, S.E.L teaches that “everyone experiences a range of positive and negative emotions [and] gives children tools to slow down and think when facing conflicts, [as well as] teach[ing] them to foster empathy and show kindness.” The five goals for S.E.L students are self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Kids in S.E.L programs, then, learn how to ground themselves, how to remain centered, and interact with kindness; and therefore, they are learning how to increase the quality of each of their interactions. They are learning how to be relational.
Studies that have been done on these programs prove their effectiveness in promoting future success. A 2011 analysis of 213 S.E.L programs involving 270,034 students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school showed that, in comparison to students in a control group, the students that had gone through S.E.L programs exhibited improved social and emotional skills, and also showed an 11 point gain in academic achievement percentiles. Further, researchers from Duke and Penn State recently analyzed 753 adults who had been evaluated for social competency when they were students around 20 years ago, and found that high scores for sharing, cooperating, and helping others as children often correlated with the achievement of successes like graduating from college and full time employment as adults. Studies like these remind us that being relational instead of transactional doesn’t mean that we put our own goals on the back-burner; it just means work more communally to reach them, and help others succeed as we do. The earlier we learn that lesson, the easier it is to continue to practice as adults.
More and more evidence is being presented that, in the words of Mark T. Greenburg, a professor of Human Development and Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, “‘the ability to get along with others is really the glue of human development.’” In our crowded and hyper-connected world, it is easy to lose sight of that truth. We can achieve so much more when we are able to connect and work with others, but we are not always born with an inherent knowledge of how to do so. In fact, for almost everyone, being relational is work, not second nature. Our reactivity, our short-tempers, our impulses to avoid conflict: all are naturally occurring responses to conflict, but these responses do not help us get along with each other and, because of that, do not help us to develop. It is in accepting that we must learn how to get along with and connect with each other that we understand the importance of these S.E.L courses. We dream of a more relational, connected, and healthier future; the creation of that future starts with teaching, and that teaching starts now.