The Missing Piece -- How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools

Arithmetic and higher math skills are embedded in school goals, but not necessarily persistence and grit. As a result, an "either/or" dynamic has been established that prioritizes academic skills, at the expense of "social and emotional" learning.
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In classrooms across America, teachers teach their students the knowledge and skills required for academic achievement. They plan lessons, share knowledge, comment on homework, grade tests and engage their students in learning. In addition to these core responsibilities, many teachers also inspire their students, and teach them how to dream, thrive, and succeed -- even after failure. But in too many classrooms, students and their teachers focus so much attention on the cognitive elements of education that other life skills are left behind. While reading and writing are intentionally taught, the skills of resilience and responsibility are often not. Arithmetic and higher math skills are embedded in school goals, but not necessarily persistence and grit. As a result, an "either/or" dynamic has been established that prioritizes academic skills, at the expense of "social and emotional" learning, which includes essential life skills such as self-awareness and management, grit and determination, empathy and conflict resolution, discipline and industriousness, and the application of knowledge and skills to real-world situations.

This counterproductive dynamic has been established despite overwhelming evidence that social and emotional learning (SEL) boosts student achievement. An analysis of more than 200 rigorous studies indicates that students who received social and emotional learning had achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not, together with improved attitudes and behaviors and reduced emotional distress (1). What's even more striking is that these are the very life skills and experiences that high school dropouts themselves told us would have kept them in school and on a path to success (2).

And now, for the first time, we know that those on the front lines of schools -- our teachers -- endorse social and emotional learning as a key part of American education. Our report released this week, The Missing Piece, shares the findings from a nationally-representative sample of 605 educators from preschool through 12th grade. Nearly all teachers (93 percent) believe SEL is "very" or "fairly" important for the in-school student experience. Even more (95 percent) believe that social and emotional skills are teachable, and 87 percent report that SEL benefits students from all backgrounds, rich and poor. The national survey shows that SEL can help address key national challenges, including that America's educational advantage is slipping. College attainment rates in the U.S. are growing at a below-average rate compared to other peer nations and there are approximately three million jobs for which the U.S. is not training qualified workers (3). Teachers agree that social and emotional learning is a key part of the solution to address these challenges.

Teachers across the country explained that SEL increases student interest in learning, improves student behavior, prevents and reduces bullying and improves school climate. In all, more than three quarters of teachers believe a larger focus on SEL will be a major benefit to students because of positive effects on workforce readiness (87 percent), school attendance and graduation (80 percent), life success (87 percent), college preparation (78 percent) and academic success (75 percent).

We have powerful examples of schools, districts, and states intentionally prioritizing SEL in programs and policies with tremendous results. In Austin, Texas, teachers report more students are on task and engaged during lessons. In Cleveland, Ohio, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased district-wide by 58.8 percent over a six-year period. And now, we have the voices of teachers saying that social and emotional learning is a key solution to empower students and transform schools.

Yet, SEL has been underutilized for too long. Our lack of action inhibits students across the country from fully realizing their potential as knowledgeable, responsible, caring, and contributing individuals. The survey provides insights into paths forward. Indeed, teachers themselves identified key accelerators for social and emotional learning. For example, two of three teachers (62 percent) think the development of social and emotional skills should be explicitly stated in their state education standards. Other actions, including tying SEL to classroom, school, and district goals and funding integrated professional development to educators could advance the strategic and systemic use of SEL in schools to promote student success as learners, workers, and citizens. The Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act of 2013, introduced this month by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), would allow the flexible use of federal funds to support teachers' professional development in social and emotional learning.

With this knowledge, we must act to ensure that teachers are supported in this important work, and students are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in school, work and life. Or, as one educator simply put it, SEL is "tough work but it's the right work."

John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce are co-authors of The Missing Piece, a report by Civic Enterprises with Hart Research for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The report is available at or

[1] Greenberg, M.T., Weissberg, R.P., O'Brien, M.U., Zins, J.E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M.J. (2003, June/July). Enhancing School-Based Prevention and Youth Development through Coordinated Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. American Psychologist 58(6/7), 466-474; Kress, J.S. & Elias, M.J. (2006). Building Learning Communities through Social and Emotional Learning: Navigating the Rough Seas of Implementation. Professional School Counseling 10(1), 102-107; Zins, J.E., Bloodworth, M.R., Weissberg, R.P., & Walberg, H.J. The Scientific Base Linking Social and Emotional Learning to School Success. In J.E. Zins, R.P. Weissberg, M.C. Wang, & H.J. Walberg (Eds.), Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does The Research Say? (pp. 3-22). New York, NY: Teachers College Press; Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., Schellinger, K. (2011, January/February). The Impact of Enhancing Students' Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

[2] Bridgeland, J., Dilulio Jr., J., & Morison, K. (2006, March). The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Washington, D.C.: Civic Enterprises.

[3] Carnelvale, A., Smith, N. & Strohl, J.. (2010, June). Help Wanted : Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018. Georgetown University Center on Education and The Workforce.

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