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Education Opinion

‘The Missing Piece’

By Maurice J. Elias — December 03, 1997 7 min read
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Maurice J. Elias is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and the coordinator of its internship program in applied, school, and community psychology. He is a member of the leadership team of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning.

Daniel Goleman’s best-selling 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, has cast a revealing light on the missing dimension in modern education, identifying its nature and impact for all to see. He is not the first to do so. Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” model addresses the value of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Even Jean Piaget, in a little-known work, Intelligence and Affectivity, asserted that the tempering of ideas with emotions, and feelings with thinking, is not a matter of philosophy; it is a matter of biology, of human definition. But Mr. Goleman’s book and the “EQ” designation that has come into wider use because of it have crystallized for millions of readers throughout the world the notion that both children and adults are social and emotional beings first, and that any system of education and socialization that does not take this primary characteristic into consideration will not be effective in producing healthy citizens. High test scores, maybe. But productive community members, contributors to workplaces and families, thinking members of a democratic system where interpersonal give-and-take are essential? Not likely.

The skills essential for social and emotional learning include these: the ability to communicate effectively; social skills that allow for true participation and for cooperative work in groups; emotional self-control and appropriate expression of emotions; empathy and perspective taking; the ability to plan, set goals, focus concentration and energies, and follow through; problem-solving skills and the ability to resolve conflicts thoughtfully and nonviolently; and the skills and dispositions needed to bring a reflective, learning-to-learn approach to all domains of daily life.

Can there be any true academic or social success without these skills? The literature on effective middle schools is instructive. A common denominator among these schools is that they have systematic procedures in place for addressing children’s social and emotional skills. There are schoolwide mentoring programs, group guidance and advisory periods, modifications of the usual discipline systems, and classroom programs that allow time for group problem-solving and team-building. True, the successful schools have sound academic programs and competent teachers and administrators, but other schools not quite so successful have these features, too. The social and emotional learning component is the distinguishing factor.

True, the successful schools have sound academic programs and competent teachers and administrators, but other schools not quite so successful have these features, too.

Publication this fall by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development of Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, written by members of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning, provides more detail on such proven practices and gives contact information for observing social and emotional learning programs in action.

The book is designed to outline what we know about how to provide settings and programs for students that will enhance their social and emotional skills development and increase their capacity for positive functioning in schools. It features a set of guidelines for those in the position of choosing, designing, or monitoring and evaluating such efforts and provides examples at three levels: individual classroom, school building, and school district. This information is based on what has been learned from long-term, school-based research projects, most of which have crossed from the realm of demonstration into ongoing parts of a school’s operation.

Based on such work, here are the reasons educators must care more about social and emotional learning:

  • Social and emotional learning is the basis for meeting the preventive mandates of schools. A sound framework for encouraging social and emotional skills development allows a school or a district to bring together under one conceptual and instructional umbrella the many differing mandates they have for preventing destructive behavior and curbing social problems.

Development of social and emotional skills is the critical unifying factor in school-based efforts to prevent alcohol, tobacco, steroid, and other drug use; violence; premature sexual activity; school disaffection and dropping out; and other problem behaviors. It encompasses such areas as teaching refusal skills, how to resist peer pressure, and conflict resolution.

  • Academic learning and performance is linked to social and emotional skills development. When we look carefully at the literature on resilience and examples of how school success may occur in unexpected circumstances (and failure under favorable conditions), we usually find this “missing piece” as a factor. The nature of school learning itself is relational. Success depends on a student’s having the ability to maintain positive social and emotional interactions with those who enable him to learn. Social skills and self-control are essential for building and sustaining the school relationships needed for building not only academic success, but for developing citizenship, maintaining a civilized and nonviolent classroom, and providing effective, inclusive education.

In the process of civilizing and humanizing our children, the missing piece is, without doubt, social and emotional learning. Protestations that this must be outside of and separate from traditional schooling are misinformed, harmful, and may doom us to continued frustration in our academic mission and the need for Herculean efforts in behavioral damage control and repair. The roster of social casualties will grow ever larger.

From Robert Sylwester’s 1995 ASCD publication, A Celebration of Neurons, we know that memory is event-coded, linked to social and emotional situations, and that these are integral parts of the larger units of memory that make up what we learn and retain--including what takes place in the classroom.

Even a brief perusal of my own state of New Jersey’s core-curriculum standards shows how social and emotional skills form the centerpiece of sections dealing with workplace readiness and comprehensive health education. Is there any doubt that this emphasis is a precursor of a similar national focus in the future?

  • Social and emotional skills are essential for citizenship in a democracy. The “missing piece” connects diverse aspects of learning and schooling and fosters a synergy that is directly relevant to being able to function in a democracy. Participating in the process of decisionmaking, whether in classrooms, youth groups, or communities, requires skills for engaging in collaborative planning, for mobilizing the creative process of seeking ways to extend and expand the values of group participation, and, overall, for being able to engage in reflective consideration of the feelings, goals, and solutions that revolve around the issues being faced. Such thinking is enhanced by knowledge of the history and current status of what is being considered. But truly participatory democracy is a product of the synergy between such content-based knowledge and social and emotional skills.

Identifying the dimensions of this “missing piece” of effective schooling creates a challenge for educators, but it also outlines a path. An environment conducive to learning needs to be one that recognizes the points at which interpersonal, intrapersonal, and academic domains converge. The development of strong social and emotional skills programs allows these necessary linkages to be made. That, in turn, makes it possible to reach children, to engage them, and to help them feel that they can contribute to the school and the community, to their families, and to their future workplace. More important, such programs also give them the skills to do so.

Children in class who are confused by an array of hurtful feelings cannot and will not learn effectively.

A first step will be for educators at all levels to recognize how social and emotional learning is critical to the process of civilizing, humanizing, and educating students. The next step will be calling up the courage to act on that knowledge.

Many of the problems in our schools are the result of the social and emotional malfunctioning and the debilitation that too many children have suffered from and continue to bear the consequences of. Children in class who are confused by an array of hurtful feelings cannot and will not learn effectively. We must ensure that finding the missing piece of our efforts to reach them does not turn into yet another lost opportunity.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 1997 edition of Education Week as ‘The Missing Piece’

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