Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Social-Emotional Learning Pays Off

By Timothy P. Shriver & John M. Bridgeland — February 26, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

From time to time, we chance upon an insight that disrupts our sense of what we thought was obviously true. For example, most of us think we learn skills that will make us money by using our minds—by learning what to “do” with the information we “know.” Investing in developing our hearts—how we “feel” and “relate” to one another—is not viewed as a primary function of education.

If this seems obvious, then it might seem equally obvious that education should be about learning things with our heads. “Leave your problems at the schoolhouse door,” a sign once read, “and enter here to learn.” Learn what? Learn academic stuff. Learn how? Learn just with your head.

Wrong. This week, a groundbreaking study from Columbia University, “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning,” reveals what we call “the heart payoff.”

For many years, growing numbers of scholars and educators have been exploring the ways in which emotions and relationships contribute to learning. Under the broad umbrella of “social and emotional learning,” hundreds of researchers, teachers, administrators, and policymakers around the country have been trying to promote the social and emotional development of children and adults. At the same time, these pioneers are working to improve the culture of schools, the expectations of adults, the ways in which discipline is meted out, the mind-sets of learners, and the opportunities for young people’s expression, service, and aspiration.

The head and the heart are headed for a reunion in the classrooms of America.”

Most people, when introduced to these kinds of social and emotional strategies, assume that they’re “nice”—maybe even “important.” But few think that developing healthy emotions and social connectivity is really a good return on investment.

But that’s the news from the Columbia study’s authors, Henry M. Levin and Clive Belfield. Over the last year, they examined the economic returns from investments in six prominent social and emotional interventions—from learning and literacy programs to combat aggression and violence; to efforts to promote positive thinking, actions, and self-concepts; to practices that improve problem-solving abilities, capacities to manage emotions, and the very skills that lead to greater student motivation and engagement in their learning.

Their findings are striking: Each of the socially and emotionally focused programs—4R’s, Positive Action, Life Skills Training, Second Step, Responsive Classroom, and Social and Emotional Training (Sweden)—showed significant benefits that exceeded costs. In fact, the average among the six interventions showed that for every dollar invested, there is a return of more than 11 dollars. The lead researcher told us, “These are unprecedented returns, particularly given that, while the estimates of the costs are clear, only a portion of the possible benefits are captured.” Benefits include reductions in child aggression, substance abuse, delinquency, and violence; lower levels of depression and anxiety; and increased grades, attendance, and performance in core academic subjects.

At long last, the stubborn myth that the head and the heart are separate organs may be about to die in the place where that myth has had its most negative consequences: schools.”

These findings build on other recent evidence that our long-standing neglect of relationships and the inner life of children needs to change. A path-breaking study of teachers commissioned by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, found that 93 percent want more focus on social and emotional learning in schools. Similar surveys of employers confirm the same thing: They seek the very skills that programs of social and emotional learning foster: teamwork, problem-solving, character, and grit. A 2011 meta-analysis of social-and-emotional-learning interventions (“The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions”) established perhaps the most important link: High-quality social and emotional learning increases academic achievement, too.

All this suggests that something powerful is emerging in American education. At long last, the stubborn myth that the head and the heart are separate organs may be about to die in the place where that myth has had its most negative consequences: schools. Neither science nor common sense supports the idea that learning is a mechanical process of taking information and bolting it onto a brain, but that’s exactly the mentality that has led generations of reformers to overlook the art and science of promoting the social and emotional development of children. Somehow, we came to think of emotion and relationship as tangential to knowledge acquisition. Somehow, we thought we could learn, become productive, and be successful without engaging our social and emotional lives.

Now we can see otherwise. Social and emotional learning has a powerful combination of evidence and support: teachers on the front lines of learning, research on its power to promote improved test scores, policymakers frustrated with the toxic environment in education today, and now a strong economic case for change. This ought to be enough to unleash a full-scale national effort to make high-quality programming for social and emotional learning a core part of education from prekindergarten through high school.

The tide is finally shifting. The head and the heart are headed for a reunion in the classrooms of America. It can’t come soon enough.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as The Heart Payoff

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Leader To Learn From Transforming a School District, One Relationship at a Time
Richard Tomko of Belleville, N.J., schools wants to build an early foundation for students and help those with disabilities flourish.
8 min read
Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits Mrs. Gras’ pre-K class and participates in a dancing activity to enrich gross motor skills on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. One of Dr. Tomko’s main initiatives as superintendent has been to grow Belleville Public School’s “Preschool Universe,” which has been largely successful since the opening of the Hornblower Early Childhood Center in 2020. District enrollment in the “Preschool Universe” was at 7.8% in the 2018-19 school year, and is now at 86.7% for the 2022-23 school year.
Richard Tomko, superintendent of Belleville public schools in Belleville, N.J., has deepened community trust while improving the district's financial footing and expanding academic programs.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
School & District Management Photo Essay PHOTOS: A Superintendent Who Exudes Joy in All Things
EdWeek photographer Sam Mallon reflects on her day with Richard Tomko, a 2023 Leaders to Learn From honoree.
2 min read
During a visit to the new Belleville Indoor Training Facility, Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools, speaks with Carolyn Guancione, Indoor Training Facility Support Staff, about how the space continues to transform, in Belleville, N.J., on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The new training facility was built to facilitate and accommodate general physical activity and training for sports teams within the school system and the greater Belleville community.
Richard Tomko, the superintendent of Belleville public schools, speaks with Carolyn Gancione during a visit to the district's new indoor training facility, which is shared with the community.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
School & District Management Opinion Your School Leadership Needs More Student Voice
When one Virginia principal moved from middle school to high school, he knew he would need to find new ways of soliciting student feedback.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
3 min read
Illustration of students holding speech bubbles.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management First Latina Selected to Lead National Principals Group
Raquel Martinez is a middle school principal in Pasco, Wash.
3 min read
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Courtesy of the National Association of Secondary School Principals