5 reasons to invest in the social and emotional development of students

Brookings expert Hugh B. Price says it’s time to change how we think about educating America’s K-12 students.

As Congress struggles to re-write the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now known as the No Child Left Behind law, or NCLB), Economic Studies Nonresident Senior Fellow Hugh B. Price says it’s time for policymakers to focus on what he calls a “crucial aspect of K-12 school improvement,” that “has long been given the short shrift by legislators and educators”—the social and emotional development of students who chronically fail to achieve academic success.

Though America’s schools have gained ground in recent years, Price notes that progress has stalled in many urban districts that serve low-income and minority students. To move the needle in these underperforming areas, he calls for an entirely new education model that shifts from a narrow focus on traditional scholastic objectives to one that includes data-driven interventions to strengthen the social and emotional skills of “youngsters who have dialed out of traditional schooling.”  Here are five reasons why Price says an increased focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical:

1. Social and emotional competence is directly tied to academic achievement

Students who consistently struggle in school often lack the social and emotional skills they need to succeed academically. They act out, interact poorly with teachers and peers, don’t pay attention in class, and skip school.  By contrast, Price notes that studies show that “students who are socially and emotionally developed manage their emotions, calm themselves when angry, establish positive relationships, make responsible and safe decisions, and handle challenging situations constructively and ethically.”

2. Social and emotional skills also matter in the workplace

Once students enter the workforce, social and emotional competence remain critically important. Price points out that the traits that employers value in their employees include self-esteem, goal-setting, self-motivation, pride in work accomplished, interpersonal skills and teamwork—all skills fostered through SEL programs.

3. Low-income and minority students disproportionately lack social and emotional skills

“Low-income and minority children are more likely than their economically advantaged white counterparts to exhibit the academic indifference and behavioral difficulties associated with social and emotional deficits,” says Price. He also points to demographic trends that indicate that the U.S. economy will rely increasingly on African Americans and Latinos to fill a growing portion of the workforce, but that “these economically indispensable groups, along with the overlapping population of low-income students, consistently lag farthest behind academically.” Improving social and emotional learning opportunities could change this—and improve the economic outcomes of our future workforce. (For more reading, the latest Brookings Essay takes an in-depth look at America’s rapidly changing demographics and the need to educate tomorrow’s workforce.)

4. Research shows that SEL programs really work

According to Price, a large-scale meta-analysis of more than 200 programs involving roughly 270,000 students from kindergarten through high school affirmed the effectiveness of school-based SEL programs. Researchers reported that the academic performance of students served by SEL programs improved significantly.

5. Investing in social and emotional development makes economic sense

A recent Teachers College study shows that for every dollar invested in SEL programs, there is return of eleven dollars—a rate of economic return that Price affirms “would be the envy even of hedge funds.” 

As Price concludes:

“Of course parents, churches and communities bear primary responsibility for socializing children, but if in reality they are not up to it, what then? Consigning these youngsters to academic purgatory or, worse still, the criminal justice system serves neither society’s interests nor, obviously, theirs. Research and real-world experience demonstrate convincingly that investing in the academic and social development of youngsters left way behind pays welcome dividends. SEL deserves, at long last, a prominent place in school reform policy and practice.”

Read the full paper, Social and emotional development: The next school reform frontier here.