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Social and Emotional Learning
  • Wellbeing

This blog is from one of COBIS' Supporting Associates.

Written by Jenny Anderson, Senior Education Reporter and Host of The Learnit Podcast.

Learnit is a community for educator leaders to have honest discussions about change with their peers. In this blog, Jenny Anderson, host of The Learnit Podcast, looks at an issue that has been at the forefront of the educational conversation recently: social and emotional learning. It’s a topic Learnit will be covering at its upcoming conference in January. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released the results of its first international survey of social and emotional development. The report covers more than 3,000 10 and 15-year-old students from large cities in 11 countries, including Houston, Texas; Helsinki, Finland; and Suzhou, China and analysed five key areas:

  • Task performance (persistence and self-control)
  • Emotional regulation (optimism and reaction to stress), and collaboration (empathy and trust)
  • Open-mindedness (tolerance, curiosity, and creativity)
  • Engagement with others (assertiveness and sociability)

The objective was not to rank skills, but to analyse the way social-emotional skills affect student performance. Some results were not surprising: learners with strong social and emotional skills get better grades in schools and are more likely to go on to higher education. Curiosity and persistence were the strongest predictors of academic success in both math and reading for both 10-year olds and teenagers. 

One finding was surprising: in every country and every category and across all socioeconomic backgrounds, 10-year-olds had much better social and emotional skills than 15-year-olds. Students, teachers, and parents all reported this. Gaps were particularly wide for optimism, trust, energy, and sociability, and girls had bigger drops than boys across most of these skills.

On the surface, this makes sense – being 10 is just easier than being 15, what with hormones, brain development that favours status seeking, and, well, growing up. 

But it also shows that schools are missing something. “Ask yourself, what are we doing as parents, as schools, as education systems to help young people through this difficult period of adolescence?” Andreas Schleicher, head of the education division at the OECD asked here. “It’s something that I think we should take to heart, that there is a period in their lives where we should redouble our efforts.”

It’s widely accepted that in primary school, children need help building self-control and emotional regulation. Parents and educators make space and time for this to happen. But somehow, when those same kids leave for secondary school, we decide that content matters more than emotions, even though we know the stress of managing friendships, eco-anxiety, exams, and rising inequality occupy their hearts and minds. Do we think chemistry class will distract them? 

This is not just about the way kids feel about themselves and the world. Skills like self-regulation and metacognition actually fuel cognitive, or academic, learning, whereas the inverse is not true. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social and Emotional Skills found that social and emotional skills – things like self-regulation and executive function – are 10 times more predictive than test scores of long-term adult success. 

Adolescent brains are on fire with development, and young people are looking to make meaning of their lives. “They crave mattering and we can help them by enabling them to do things that matter,” Ronald Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California Berkeley told me. 

We need to create opportunities for meaning as part of their social and emotional development, the same way we make space for them to learn about covalent bonds and the periodic table. These kids are suffering without it. 

According to the OECD data, a whopping 80% feel lonely, awkward at school every day and that they don’t fit in. Covid accelerated that pain, and isolation. Schools are reporting more violence. A large cohort of the top pediatricians in the US declared a mental health emergency for children and adolescents. A deputy school head in the UK recently told me their counsellor left on the first day, utterly overwhelmed by the scope of what lay ahead in helping students cope. 

Evidence shows that social and emotional learning for young and mid-adolescence is not great. It’s not authentic and if teens do one thing supremely well, it’s detect inauthenticity. We need to do better - not by delivering one-day or one-hour program, but by hiring counsellors and supporting teachers and leaders to embed agency and meaning into kids' lives, to talk to them honestly about the world, and to support them beyond academic learning. 

Somehow we can see that little kids need help learning to be good humans. Why can’t we see that teens need help too?


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