Why Social-Emotional Learning Matters

On July 18th 2020 UNESCO MGIEP (the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development) published Re-thinking Learning: A Review of Social-Emotional Learning for Education Systems. It is a much needed and welcome publication that addresses both research and practice.  

Social and emotional learning (SEL) enables people to identify and navigate emotions, develop positive behaviours that enable them to connect well with others – and consider what gives life meaning. All of this is important for individuals and the health of their relationships but also for the sustainability of families, communities and the wider world.

As Michel Richard says in the foreword, this is about having “meaningful guidance on becoming a good human being — happy within and benevolent without”.

I have lived with social and emotional learning research and practice for decades within the wider realm of whole child – whole school wellbeing, including developing the ASPIRE pedagogy to make SEL a safe and solution focused intervention.*  This can be found in the third edition of Circle Solutions for Student Wellbeing third edition published by Corwin/Sage in March 2020.

I am also a co-author on one of the chapters of the UNESCO publication.  Rather than focusing on the theory, research and practice as described in this book, however, I have been thinking about the difference SEL might have made to someone I knew well, a teacher called Joe.  Joe died ten years ago but his life was so much unhappier than it need have been.

Joe was a good man – he cared about justice, human rights and poverty and on one level was really kind. He stayed up all night once to drip feed milk to an abandoned kitten. But none of his intimate relationships thrived.  He was a good ‘hail fellow, well met’ friend, popular in the local pub but unable to foster or maintain a sense of closeness or deal constructively with emotionally challenging situations.

Joe’s life was plagued by his inability to understand his feelings. This impacted on his attitude to everything, including himself, how he related to others and the ways in which he communicated with those close to him – or rather did not communicate. He had not learnt the basics of constructive problem solving so anything challenging was overwhelming. He loved his work in education when pupils wanted to learn, but was unable to respond flexibly with those less motivated or non-compliant, lumping them together as ‘louts’.

Joe’s sense of self was too fragile to reflect on what he might have done differently in any given situation so blaming others and being the victim became his way of being.  Every one of his close relationships foundered.

Joe grew up in a rural English village where his parents were stalwarts of the church. They were kind, thoughtful and generous people – but no-one ever talked about important issues. The state of the world certainly, but never the personal.  Grief was buried, embarrassing difficulties side-lined and misdemeanours simply condemned. Maybe it was a generational thing but this way of being has wide repercussions.

It isn’t surprising that Joe was uncomfortable with his emotional self. Expressing love was all but impossible for him. He had little conception of strengths-based language, so although able to talk at length when things were not going well or he felt hard done by, he rarely commented on what was right nor what he valued in someone., especially to their face. At his funeral several people told his grown children how proud their father had been of them. They were surprised – he had never said that to them.

Joe could laugh easily in a social situation, but otherwise not express joy or even satisfaction. He was easily irritated and at times that tipped over into anger. He eventually contracted multiple sclerosis and bore this dreadful disease with courage. Because he was a loyal and generous friend, many stood by him until the inevitable end. He had great qualities which is why it is so desperately sad that his life had such gaping holes.

I have often wondered what difference it would have made if SEL had been on the curriculum and threaded through Joe’s experience at school. This is what might have happened.

Alongside his peers, Joe would have learnt a wide vocabulary for feelings, and practiced using these in hypothetical situations. He would have understood more about what triggered certain feelings and discovered ways to regulate these and perhaps cheer himself up when feeling downhearted, appreciating that ways of thinking were powerful for both the positive and negative.  Joe would have been able to acknowledge and value his own strengths of character and those of the people around him. He would have learnt that being thankful for small things helped staved off depression and that there was a skill to problem-solving and conflict resolution that offered a sense of competence rather than frustration. Most importantly, he might have learnt how to talk more easily with those close to him – showing interest and warmth – and not been afraid of that closeness. He might have learnt how to be an active listener – tuning into feelings, not just words.

© Emma Marshall

Joe is not the only person whose family was unfamiliar with what we now call emotional literacy and who experienced a similar education. Family breakdown is commonplace, many resort to drink or drugs to change how they feel and unresolved conflict is in the media on a daily basis. 

It has become clear during the pandemic that SEL matters for individuals and the world they create at least as much as academic subjects, possibly even more. It is the difference between being at the mercy of what life throws at you and having some control over how you respond. It is about being able to analyse messages on social media and not being emotionally manipulated by these.  It is about seeking the positive, not stereotyping people and most importantly, providing a foundation for what is at the crux of happiness or misery – the health of our relationships.  Joe is just one example of what might happen when you don’t learn these things – his life would have been so much better if he had.  We owe it to our children to give them the best possible chance of flourishing in all dimensions of their being.  SEL needs to be at the heart of education in every school, everywhere.


Published by Dr Sue Roffey

Dr Sue Roffey is an honorary Associate Professor at University College, London and Western Sydney Universities. Previously a teacher and educational psychologist, she is a prolific author on all issues concerning schools and student wellbeing and Director of Growing Great Schools Worldwide.

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