Not long ago the two of us gave a talk to a group of mental-health professionals about the teaching of emotional intelligence. Afterwards, a leading child psychiatrist approached us to applaud our appeal for greater social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools. The psychiatrist added: “We’re going to need another 8,000 child psychiatrists in the United States to deal with all of the mental-health problems our children are having.”
“You misunderstood us,” Marc responded. “We want to put you all out of business.”
The ultimate goal of the SEL field is to weave the teaching of social-emotional intelligence throughout children's education so lives are enhanced and crises are rare. But, as the eminent psychiatrist was pointing out, we have a long way to go.
This winter marks the 30th anniversary of the first scholarly publication on emotional intelligence. In it, Peter Salovey of Yale University and John D. Mayer of the University of New Hampshire challenged the proposition that emotions mostly cloud judgment and get in the way of rational thought. Instead, Salovey and Mayer said, when we use emotions wisely, we make better decisions and have improved mental health and relationships.
"Developing true social-emotional skills is hard and lifelong work, and, regrettably, Americans are attracted to quick fixes."
A few years later, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was founded to support high-quality, evidence-based SEL as essential curricula from preschool through high school. SEL was formally defined as attitudes and competencies that foster self- and social awareness and the abilities to manage one’s own and others’ emotions and behavior, make responsible decisions, and nurture positive relationships.
Over the past two decades, research has shown that SEL skills can be taught, and that when schools embed SEL into the school day with fidelity, it improves children’s lives, the culture of the school, and even teacher well-being. Schools report increased academic success, enriched relationships between teachers and students, and decreases in aggression. And SEL has been shown to be a financially sound investment: According to a 2015 cost-benefit analysis, for every dollar invested in SEL, $11 were saved from reduced delinquency, substance abuse, and the like.
A January 2019 report from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development concluded that SEL is not an educational fad; it is integral to education. In addition, emotional intelligence is greatly needed in the workplace, say reports from CEOs, the World Economic Forum, and analysts of the future of work
American youths now rank in the bottom quarter of developed nations in global comparisons of well-being and life satisfaction. Suicides among 15- to 19-year-olds have risen 47 percent over the past two decades. More than 1 in 3 college freshmen have a diagnosed mental-health condition. School bullying and harassment remain significant problems. Corporal punishment is still allowed in classrooms in 19 states, and suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately applied to black students.
So while the importance of SEL has been formally and informally recognized, its promise has not been fulfilled. Why?
Each year the two of us give dozens of presentations to educators, parents, and business professionals all over the world. When asked to describe their emotional state, three-quarters of the participants have difficulty coming up with a meaningful “feeling word.” And when we ask them for strategies they’ll use to maintain their focus, they are equally at a loss. “I’ll leave my feelings at the door,” they say, or “I’ll drink a lot of coffee.” Or more fashionably, “I’ll be mindful.” Are these strategies useful for someone exhausted at work, a teenager paralyzed with performance anxiety, or a preschooler going through her parents’ gruelling divorce?
Marc Brackett & Diana Divecha : Education Week