EMOTIONAL HEALTH
July 20, 2017

An Emotional Education

When schools help kids understand their emotions and their relationships with others better, it produces lifelong dividends.

When was the last time you had to calculate a square root? Or explain the consequences of the Punic Wars? It was probably a long time ago. Now think about the last time you had to deal with a relationship problem. That was probably much more recent. And that is why social and emotional learning programs have become so common in schools.

Children with the best grades in schools don't always have the most successful lives, and academic accomplishment and social skills don't always go together, as any nerd will tell you. Forming good social relationships may contribute more to a child's well-being as an adult than their youthful academic performance. So why not teach social and emotional skills in the classroom?

High school graduation rates were six percent higher among the more than 97,000 students who participated in the emotional skills programs compared to students not offered training. College graduation rates were 11 percent higher.

A number of programs that aim to do this have sprung up, with MindUP and Roots of Empathy two of the better-known ones. The programs aim to teach children to recognize and understand their emotions, feel empathy, and make good decisions. They emphasize the value and skills involved in building and maintaining relationships.

Studies on the effects of these programs have found them beneficial in the short run, but the current study looked at the longer-term effects of 82 programs designed to help students improve their emotional and social skills, tracking students from six months to 18 years after the programs ended. And it found a lot to be happy about.

High school graduation rates were six percent higher among the more than 97,000 students who participated in these programs compared to students not offered emotional skills training. College graduation rates were 11 percent higher. Drug use and behavioral problems were six percent lower, and diagnoses of mental health disorders 13.5 percent lower. Arrest rates dropped by 19 percent.

Children benefitted from the programs regardless of their race, socioeconomic background or school location, and while the study can't prove that the social and emotional learning programs were responsible for these differences, they certainly don't seem to be hurting.

“Social-emotional learning programs teach the skills that children need to succeed and thrive in life,” Eva Oberle, study co-author and an Assistant Professor with the Human Early Learning Partnership in the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health, points out. Schools are an ideal place to teach these skills. Not only do they serve both the rich and the poor, but children spend a lot of time in them. It would be better if, instead of having to teach them as part of a special program, Oberle believes, schools integrated these ideas into their daily lessons.

“Teaching social-emotional learning in schools is a way to support individual children in their pathways to success, and it's also a way to promote better public health outcomes later in life,” Oberle says. “However, these skills need to be reinforced over time and we would like to see schools embed social-emotional learning systematically into the curriculum, rather than doing programs as a ‘one-off.’”

The study appears in Child Development and is freely available.
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