Why social and emotional learning needs to be prioritised in schools  

Diverse school children smiling as they lean over their desks in the classroom
By Noémie Le Donné and Hannah Ulferts 

Social and emotional skills underpin everything we do

Each weekday morning in Tokyo, children as young as six are walking to school on their own. After arriving, they bow, take off their street shoes and change into footwear for the classroom. Later in the day, they will clean the school – classrooms, hallways, toilets – as part of efforts to teach students to take responsibility for shared spaces and help create responsible citizens. This part of the Japanese education system is one of the reasons why public spaces there are so clean. 

The example above is a vivid portrait of social and emotional skills in action. Core skills that are vital to academic performance, employability and successful societies. In Japanese schools, kids must be punctual and reliable, routinely honour commitments and live in harmony with others; they must also be able to approach others, initiate and maintain social connections, and take on daily life with energy and empathy. How does this square with academic performance? We cannot say for sure, but Japan is among the top performing countries in the world at maths and science, according to OECD PISA results. An emphasis on skills such as perseverance and responsibility are, plausibly, part of the reason why Japanese students get such high marks. 

In short, all Japanese students are expected to develop skills such as responsibility, sociability and co-operation. These are only three of the 15 skills that the OECD’s Survey on Social and Emotional Skills measures on a global scale, along with curiosity and creativity (among others). And these three skills might matter more in Japan than elsewhere – as Professor Patrick Newell from Shizenkan University, Japan, suggested in a recent OECD webinar. This is because Japan is a collective society, which emphasises the needs of others above those of the individual. However, this could be to the detriment of entrepreneurship and innovation, which require other social and emotional skills, such as curiosity and creativity.  

“Social and emotional skills undergird everything that we do – at school, at home, in relationships” Professor Stephanie Jones from the Harvard Graduate School of Education told audiences in the same webinar. “It’s not like we have a choice. We can’t separate social and emotional learning from schooling itself, whether we like it or not.” 

Social and emotional learning does not stop as primary school ends 

So are teachers and schools doing enough? Many are, according to newly published findings from the OECD’s Survey on Social and Emotional Skills (SSES). More than 90% of 10- and 15-year-old students are enrolled in schools where social and emotional learning is acknowledged as an important aim for the school (based on data from 9 participating cities around the world). However, these skills are not as scrutinized as academic skills. While recording exam results is a basic requirement, only 66% of 15-year-old students are in schools that assess social and emotional learning, according to SSES. Secondary education teachers also receive fewer requests to promote social and emotional skills as part of their work, compared to primary teachers. And less feedback and advice is provided to parents about their children’s social and emotional skills in secondary education.  

Worryingly, the OECD found that social and emotional skills dip as students get older. Developmental psychology suggests that there are many reasons that contribute to the dip in social and emotional skills as students get older. Whatever the reasons, teachers and schools should redouble their efforts to support students in this important period. To reduce this ‘skills dip’, the OECD recommends that teachers in middle and high schools integrate social and emotional learning more into their work. School curriculum may need to change to reflect this and so do teacher initial training and professional development activities. Communication campaigns can also be organised to explain why these skills matter and how they can be developed.  

Teachers and parents must be clear about their intention to develop these skills when addressing children. “Students will not care (about these issues), until they know how much we care,” Director-General for Education in Portugal Pedro Cunha told webinar viewers. Schools should team up with parents to provide opportunities to practice these skills in class, outside of school, while playing sports and doing other activities, he recommended.  

Why would we do this? What difference would promoting social and emotional skills make? Evidence suggests a boost to academic performance and subsequent success in the jobs market. By reducing negative behaviours and creating positive classroom and home environments, we can help kids manage and lead more successful, fulfilling lives. It’s a goal worth striving for.