The Secret to Student Development

An AP high school teacher recently said to me: “I’ve been asked to teach history, science and math over my career, but I don’t get the chance to teach the most important subject that will enable my students to succeed in life!”

“What’s that?” I inquired.

He frowned, and sighed, “Social emotional learning.”

What Is Social Emotional Learning?


It’s become a buzzword today, as we discover that test scores are not enough to prepare our students for a career. According to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning), social emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

It sounds so elementary, but it’s as profound as a school course can get. Am I serious? You bet I am. It’s one of the reasons I founded Growing Leaders in 2003. Life skills and leadership are absolutely necessary in both K-12 and higher education, but we’ve treated it as if it were a luxury or an elective. Consider these realities:

  • Students participating in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs scored an average of 11 percent more on achievement tests. That’s measurable. SEL programs improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points.
  • Participants of SEL programs were more likely to complete high school (91% to be exact) and have lower rates of depression, PTSD, anxiety, and social phobia.
  • Participants of SEL programs had significantly lower rate of violence and heavy alcohol use. In short, the habits and disciplines were healthier.
  • Psychologists believe that if schools taught students to work well with others, regulate emotions and constructively solve problems, students would be better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, including academic ones.
  • In a survey, 93% of teachers said that they want more focus on social emotional learning in schools. They recognize how important it is.

Aren’t Teachers Doing This Already in High School and College?

To be sure, some faculty naturally weave this into their subject in the classroom. However, due to the pressure to raise test scores, many teachers feel the necessity to neglect the very “life skills” they know will prepare a student for life and leadership in order to “teach for the test.” They don’t like it, but it’s part of today’s educational landscape. Unfortunately, here are the results of this lack of SEL:

  • Only 29% of 6-12th graders say that their school provides a caring and encouraging environment.
  • 30% of high school students say they engage in high risk behaviors (sex, substance use, violence, suicidal thoughts).
  • 10% of students suffer from a mental illness that prevents them from functioning at home, school, or in their community.
  • 70-80% of students don’t receive the mental health care they need. This is due to a school failing to value SEL for students.
  • Compared to control groups, students who participate in SEL programs have significantly better school attendance records, less disruptive classroom behavior, like school more, and perform better in school. They also reduced anti-social, violent, and drug-using behaviors.

I believe teachers in every generation recognize the need for social emotional learning and cultivating emotional intelligence in their students. Today, however, our teachers often don’t feel they have a chance to have this conversation with students.

Teaching Social and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence can be developed, and it must start with us, the adults. We must model for our students the essence of EQ:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship management

Envision for a moment what your students could look like if you took time to build these qualities in them. What if you added “soft skills” to all the “hard skills” you attempt to build in them? What if your interaction in class taught them not only “what to say” but “how to say it?” What if before you taught the “what” of your lesson plan, you affirmed “why” you believe in your students’ future? What if you got beyond merely what to remember and taught them how to think? What if your classroom went from looking like a factory assembly line (rows of desks) to a Starbucks (various tables and chairs) scattered around? What if your focus went past “knowing the answer,” and taught “how to deliver the answer?” What if your class covered not only how to get results but how to build relationships? This is precisely what the content is about in Habitudes®: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes, courses one and two.

This is also one of our chief topics at the National Leadership Forum 2017. Join us in Atlanta to discover how you can weave social emotional learning into your work with students.

KIPP’s Network of over 200 Charter Schools rate of college completion by its student rose from 25% to 44% after implementing a Social Emotional Learning program. What could happen where you are?

Looking to try social emotional learning with your students? Check out
Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes

Habitudes helps students and young team members:

  • Break out of the herd mentality to influence others in positive ways.
  • Take initiative and set the pace for other teammates.
  • Overcome complex problems through creative persistence.
  • Capitalize on personal strengths to be career-ready upon graduation.

Learn More Here

The Secret to Student Development