How Emotions Play a Bigger Role than You Might Think in Students’ Learning

What do emotions have to do with learning? Turns out quite a lot, actually.

There is an important aspect of education called social-emotional learning (SEL), and it helps children effectively identify, understand, manage and express their emotions. It also includes understanding how children view themselves and how they participate in interactions with others through communication, decision-making and goal-setting.

Students who participate in SEL programs see immediate benefits in behavior and attitude, but also in long-term skills and academic outcomes. One study found that K-12 students who participated in these programs saw an 11 percent achievement gain over their peers.

Many experts believe SEL will play a major role in shaping our 21st century workforce. And it’s easy to see why: The ability to communicate, set goals and make decisions are absolutely essential to be successful in the workplace.

As policy expert Andre Perry, from the Brookings Institute recently put it, “SEL is inspired by employers.” Mr. Perry participated in a panel at the 2017 NGA Governors’ Education Policy Advisor (GEPA) Institute, along with former Michigan Governor John Engler who serves as the Co-Chair of the ASPEN Institute’s National Commission on Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. They were joined by panelists Walter Gilliam from Yale University and Linda Dusenbury, a Senior Research Scientist at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Research shows that social-emotional skills are increasingly in short supply in the workplace. Eight out of 10 employers say­ even though they are the most critical for success on the job, they’re also the hardest to find. Combine that with the fact jobs requiring strong SEL skills have outpaced the growth of all other occupations, and you can easily see the widening chasm of a skills gap that must be addressed.

Nighty percent of Business Roundtable CEOs agree, asserting the skills gap of today’s workers presents a challenge for growing and strengthening the U.S. economy.

Luckily, change can happen (and in some cases, already is happening) at the state level.

Every state in the nation has included SEL in its early learning standards. which highlights the significance of building on these foundational years in which “learning really flows through relationships for young children,” as Dr. Walter Gilliam put it. And from the CASEL State Scan Scorecard Project, led by Linda Dusensury, we know that 8 states (IL, KS, ME, MI, NJ, NV, RI, and WV) address SEL in K-12, and 9 others provide guidance on their websites to begin incorporating SEL into their education systems.

As important as that is, more can be done. Expert Andre Perry observed: “Something has to change at the structural level to ensure that there is change at the classroom level.” That’s where the real opportunity lies for states and governors.

As states continue to move forward with using SEL to produce a highly qualified workforce, a governor’s support is vital. As former Michigan Governor John Engler points out, “The governor has the power to make these changes in education, and if you set it up right at the beginning, you will see the results.”

Samantha Tankersley and Mandy Sorge are policy analysts with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Education Division.