Social and emotional skills: Global importance, local responsibility?

a young asian boy is seated and high-fiving his teacher from his desk in a classroom

By Ivona Feldmárová

Young Associate, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Social and emotional skills are linked to academic success, labour market outcomes and health.
– Policies at a local level can help to promote social and emotional skills both in schools and in the broader society.
– Data from the OECD Survey on Social and Emotional skills is the first internationally comparable data that can support the development of policies.

Recent global developments remind us that social and emotional skills are important. Having faced long periods of COVID-19-induced isolation as well as Russia’s ongoing large-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, today more than ever, the value of skills such as stress resistance, empathy, trust and co-operation cannot be overlooked. Research also tells us that there is a link between a person’s social and emotional skills and their academic success, labour market outcomes and health. The OECD’s Survey on Social and Emotional Skills finding that students’ social and emotional skills dip as students enter adolescence is concerning for these reasons. The social and emotional skills gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds should also alarm us. So what can be done to change that? And importantly, who should be taking the lead?

Using data to empower cities

Policy makers, school leaders and teachers recognise that social and emotional skills are valuable and need to be developed. It is a key objective of every OECD education system. In many countries, schools offer dedicated subjects or extracurricular activities designed to foster these skills, and individual teachers promote their development in the classroom. Yet, common themes often appear – it is challenging to implement policies and practices for improving social and emotional skills – and to know that they actually work!

So, how can countries turn aspirational objectives and national curriculum frameworks into something tangible in the classroom? How can teachers who have been trying their best to develop their students’ social and emotional skills know if what they’re doing is working?

Having data helps. Thanks to the OECD’s work in recent years, the first database of internationally comparable data on students’ social and emotional skills from 10 cities in nine countries is available. Still, challenges persist even where data exist. There is, for instance, a perception that social and emotional learning takes place at the expense of developing academic skills. Teachers may feel overloaded with yet another responsibility without adequate support. Similarly, cities that participated in the first round of the OECD’s Survey on Social and Emotional Skills have pointed out that the lack of readily available, cross-culturally-relevant resources for policies and school practices to improve social and emotional skills remains a key challenge.

Cities can help carry some of the load of putting social and emotional learning into action. Municipal governments directly serve 57% of the world population living in urban areas and they are more closely connected to the realities of local schools. They can also intervene more effectively on issues that are not directly in schools themselves but impact students’ social and emotional skills nonetheless. This includes violence in areas surrounding schools and the local availability of cultural and leisure activities. For these reasons, cities are well-placed to implement targeted policy changes that promote the development of social and emotional skills in schools and outside of them.

Empowering cities is not a new idea. Take, for example, UNESCO’s Global Network of Learning Cities, which connects cities across the world to help promote lifelong learning. Similarly, the OECD Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative brings together a coalition of local leaders to tackle inequalities and promote more inclusive economic growth in cities.

Boosting social and emotional skills in local areas

Some local governments are making use of the data from the OECD’s Survey on Social and Emotional Skills already, often in collaboration with partner foundations or universities.

For instance, in Bogotá, Colombia, the Colombian Institute for Educational Evaluation (ICFES) organised sessions that used the survey data to raise awareness among policy makers, teachers, parents and caregivers of the relationship between social and emotional skills and cognitive development.

Other cities are helping schools implement change directly. In Portugal, the city of Sintra and the Gulbenkian Foundation used the survey data to inform schools about students’ social and emotional skill levels. Schools in Sintra are grouped into 20 “clusters”. Each cluster received a diagnosis report and had to identify key areas for improvement as the basis for developing an action plan. Importantly, the municipality recognises the importance of this work and the need for adequate support – a specialised team will support the schools in implementing their action plans in the upcoming two years.

Another encouraging example comes from Helsinki, Finland, where the municipality collaborates with the University of Helsinki to further elaborate on the survey data and results, in order to produce research- and experience-based tools and support for schools, teachers and students in the city. Helsinki is tackling the challenge of culturally relevant resources head-on.

It is not easy to put national policies for social and emotional skills development in place (and provide adequate support for their implementation). There are many competing priorities and realities in schools can differ widely across a country. We also cannot expect that schools will have all the necessary tools and resources to implement change themselves. Transforming practices in a way that truly improves students’ social and emotional skills – and, ultimately, their lives – requires a tailored evidence base, will, expertise and collaboration. Where schools and national governments struggle, local governments could provide a helping hand.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Ground Picture