Educators' Social and Emotional Skills Vital to Learning: Social and Emotional Competencies Aren't Secondary to the Mission of Education, but Are Concrete Factors in the Success of Teachers, Students, and Schools

Article excerpt

"I yelled at my students too much today."

"I thought I was going to lose it when Nick acted up in class again."

"I'm so stressed out that I don't want to teach tomorrow."

Statements like these are all too familiar to educators. What teacher or administrator hasn't felt stresses that make it difficult to focus on teaching and learning? Who hasn't needed to call on a deep well of social and emotional resources to overcome those challenges?

In the current national focus on teacher quality, the essential role of teachers' social and emotional competencies is often overlooked. But ask educators when they need those competencies and they'll likely respond "every day." And ask students to describe the teachers who most influenced them and why, and their answers will likely include qualities in the social and emotional area -- the ability to listen and empathize, pick up on a subtle social cue, find a student's hidden strength, or model calm under stress.

These educators and students know intuitively what research has shown: Social and emotional competencies influence everything from teacher-student relationships to classroom management to effective instruction to teacher burnout.

There is good reason to believe that social and emotional competencies like managing emotions and stress are needed more to-day than ever before. The latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found unprecedented levels of stress and dissatisfaction among teachers and principals, with just over half of teachers reporting "great stress at least several days a week." Students, too, report high levels of stress, negative perceptions of their school environments, and problems in the social, emotional, and behavioral areas, such as bullying, conflicts with peers, and externalizing and internalizing mental health problems (O'Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). And student and teacher stress can fuel each other in many ways.

Practices and policies to support and foster educators' social and emotional competencies are fundamental to addressing these challenges. Schools must overcome the false assumption that all educators naturally possess these abilities in equal measure. As with other competencies, they can be built through coaching and other forms of support. At the core of these approaches is a clear understanding of social and emotional learning (SEL), recognition of SEL's effect on teaching and learning, and openness to innovation and shifts in school culture.

Getting concrete about SEL

Social and emotional learning has often been an umbrella term for a wide range of competencies from emotional intelligence to social competence to self-regulation. SEL competencies encompass three areas:

Emotional processes include understanding and labeling feelings accurately; regulating emotions and behaviors for the situation (e.g., calmly sorting through a disagreement rather than storming out of a faculty meeting when angry); taking another's perspective, and displaying empathy.

Social/interpersonal skills include understanding social cues (such as body language and tone of voice); correctly attributing the intent of others' behaviors (e.g., understanding a student's defiance as a desire for independence rather than a personal insult); interacting positively with students and other adults, and acting in prosocial ways (e.g., offering help and kind words).

Cognitive regulation includes maintaining attention and focus; engaging working memory, inhibiting impulses that are not appropriate to the situation (e.g., not yelling at a student or using sarcasm out of frustration), and flexibly shifting gears when needed (e.g., trying a new approach when an instructional strategy is not working).

For all adults, some of these skills come naturally, while others require ongoing effort. SEL competencies develop in a complicated set of interactions and settings from birth into adulthood. …