A+ Advice for Parents

Social and Emotional Skills Important for Students to Grasp

Q: Our district is adopting a new "social and emotional" skills program to improve classroom behavior. I agree that disruptive students are a problem, but with all the new stuff schools are loading on (e.g., STEM, Common Core), do kids really need one more thing?

A: Social and emotional leaning (SEL) is coming to many districts this fall. While the phrase may sound buzzy, SEL programs can not only help kids hone interpersonal skills and impulse control, they can boost students' academic success and improve their health.

Even teachers wary of adding more to the school day say SEL is a worthwhile addition because, if well taught, SEL cuts discipline problems and distractions. In a recent survey, more than 90 percent of teachers said they want schools to help kids develop their social skills and build good character.

Roger P. Weissberg, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of psychology and education, is chief knowledge officer at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (casel.org), a Chicago-based organization that works to bring SEL into schools. Weissberg and his colleagues have worked with many districts to integrate SEL into the school day.

"Each district has their model of integrating the program with other priorities, so it's not an add-on," he explains, "but a way to strengthen things they're already doing."

Weissberg and his colleagues reviewed the effectiveness of 213 school-based SEL learning programs reaching 270,000 students. Their research shows that the programs produce notable gains in kids' social skills, behavior and academics.

An effective SEL program teaches five core competencies that students learn to apply in daily interactions, says Weissberg.

-- Self-awareness: How to accurately assess one's feelings, interests, values and strengths.

-- Self-management: How to handle stress and express emotions effectively; control impulses; set and monitor progress toward goals.

-- Social awareness: How to see things from another's perspective; appreciate individual and group similarities and differences; recognize and use family, school and community resources.

-- Relationship skills: How to establish and maintain healthy relationships; resist inappropriate social pressure; prevent and resolve interpersonal conflict; seek help when needed.

-- Responsible decision-making: How to make rational decisions based on standards, safety concerns, social norms and respect for self and others; contribute to one's school and community.

All "emotional intelligence" begins at home, says Bill Jackson, the president and founder of GreatSchools, an education resource for parents. "Parents have a key role in teaching and reinforcing these skills."

Working with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, GreatSchools created a set of tools called Emotional Smarts to "help parents help their children build character and shape valuable life skills," says Jackson.

The online tools include videos to help parents see issues like homework and sibling rivalry from their child's perspective; a game to help children understand and recognize emotions; and ways to explore "feeling words" in a fun way. For more information, go to ei.yale.edu or greatschools.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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