“Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught,” a recent The New York Times article generated over 400 comments and thousands of additional posts and tweets (Google offers 535,000 hits).  Those of us working in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) know the answer — yes.  It can.  

The NYT comments, however, were largely about a different question:  Should it?


One blog response on HuffPost caught my attention; the author suggests that an SEL program is actually a way to create conformity.  In response to my comment, he wrote:
“My objection is to these canned programs and what they inspire, like the examples in my post. The things I suspect that you value can and should be naturally incorporated into the daily experiences of young children as they learn to be and play with each other.”

“Natural” versus “Artificial?

In large part I agree with the concern;  A “canned program” probably means inauthentic implementation.  Going through the motions of a class meeting, pretending to care about students’ feelings, robotically pushing for ‘I statements’ – it just doesn’t create value.  At the same time, there’s a dangerous double standard at play in this objection.  
SEL, or Social Emotional Learning, is a well established process for teaching the skills of emotional intelligence.  Over two decades of research provides a fairly clear picture of why and how to make this work effectively.  It’s not about a “product,” it’s about a thorough process.
Effective SEL is a living process woven into the school culture.  Effective SEL means that not only the students, but also all adults in the school, use SEL competencies in their daily lives. Effective SEL means that teachers, counselors, administrators, instructional assistants, custodians, and lunch ladies all learn SEL and use it in their interactions with students and with each other. Effective SEL means that parents learn SEL skills and use the same skills with their children at home. 
Robust research shows that SEL IS something we can effectively implement. In fact, “educators have learned that SEL programs are among the most successful of all school-based universal interventions.” And further, it works: “Well-designed, well-implemented, teacher-taught SEL programs can achieve multiple benefits that include significant improvement in students’ social-emotional development, behavior and academic performance.”

Double Standard: Is Math Different?

That said, the argument about inauthentic delivery of SEL highlights a fundamental issue facing Social Emotional Learning. Can you imagine a critic saying, “We shouldn’t have a formal math curriculum — children should learn math naturally?”  Of course it IS possible to learn math without a scope and sequence, without formative assessment, without explicit methods and processes.  Yet in academic domains, this would be highly unusual in today’s high-stakes context.
What if schools took SEL as seriously as mathematical learning?  What if the same expectations were to apply in all domains.  What if all subjects, including SEL, had basic structural ingredients… such as:
  • A thoughtful, research-based scope and sequence that builds toward mastery.
  • Time devoted to direct instruction and practice of those skills.
  • Clearly defined methods for achieving that scope and sequence.
  • Meaningful measures of student progress against these goals.
  • Well trained, passionate, committed teachers with the skills to support students in that process.
  • Supervision and support to maintain quality.
While almost all of us went to math classes with these core elements, very few adults experienced a rigorous SEL process when we were in school.  That means:
When it comes to this most basic of basic skills — how we relate to self and others — we don’t have a mental model of a systematic approach.  

The Missing Piece

The NY Times article, perhaps attempting to stir the pot,  referred to “giddiness among SEL researchers” and then quoted Maurice Elias, a pioneer in SEL (a Rutgers University psychology professor, Director of the Social Emotional Learning Lab, and founding member of the Leadership Team of the Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning – CASEL), as stating that SEL is the “missing piece in American Education.”  I’ll gladly stand with Maurice on this, and am grateful for his championship here; and apparently we’re not alone:

A 2013 Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools confirmed that a nationally representative sample of 605 teachers across America “understand, value, and endorse SEL.” According to the author of the The Missing Piece report, teachers overwhelmingly agreed that:
“social and emotional learning is the missing piece to boost student outcomes and transform our schools.”

Perhaps it’s time to stop discussing “if it can be taught,” and even “should it be taught,” but move forward to the most challenging question:  How can we best do so?  What are the essential practices of how best to teach SEL, model it, measure it, and integrate it into the culture of our classroom and school?

I’m delighted that Six Seconds is collaborating with many thought-leaders on SEL to answer these questions in a new, free & low cost online course for teachers called iSEL — premiering early next year.  If you’re reading, I hope you’ll be part of ensuring at least 25,000 teachers learn these essential skills in 2014.

The evidence is compelling.  The foundations are laid. While debate sells papers, let’s refocus on giving children the life-changing skills they need to thrive in a complex world.
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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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