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16th November 2015

TheBug Archie audio files are now playable again.


Why teach social and emotional literacy (SEL) to young people?

Circle of students

A wind of change

Here in Australia, indeed internationally, there's a wind of change and it's palpable. Curriculums have traditionally been packed with teaching reading, writing, mathematics, science, information and technology, and so on. Suddenly, a new capability termed, "Personal and social" has emerged. The idea of learning to recognise one's own emotions, the emotions of others and perceptively working together (the soft-skills).'
And, this new capability is now expected to be taught to all students in all schools. Most of us now accept that academic and technical skills (the hard-skills) are vital. They get you a certificate, a diploma or a degree; they get your foot in the door! But, just as vital is a growing awareness that doors do not remain open – in employment or in life - if you have poor social and emotional skills (soft-skills; sharing/ communicating/ empathy/ compromising and teamwork).

This addition to the curriculum has caught more than a few educators off-guard because, traditionally, modelling and teaching SEL had an inconsequential place in schools. Some continue to struggle to understand why teaching SEL skills have found parity with the traditional subjects. Yet, the truth is, these skills are at the very heart of being human and getting the greatest satisfaction from life.

Regrettably, too many leadership teams in schools today remain unaware, or indifferent, about their responsibility to teach SEL. Others justify their obligation by dabbling and pottering with SEL, but this approach has limitations. It is unrealistic to expect a child to incorporate the concepts learned in a specialised, weekly session into their everyday life when a class teacher and parents have little, or no idea, what's going on. If social and emotional education is weak, or missing at your school, use your best social skills and ask;

"Do we have a coordinated approach to teach SEL?"
"What is it? How does it work?"
"Which programs or approaches are we using?"
"Are they backed by evidence that they work?"
"Which programs overlap to provide maximum benefit to our students?"
"Is our SEL approach consistent across the school at all year levels?"
"Is this available to every child in every classroom?"
"Do we offer specific SEL intervention for at risk children?"

As you'd expect, social and emotional learning is gradual, and always generalises best within home and school environments that build a tangible social and emotional culture involving all students, staff and parents. (Verduyn, et al., 1990; Kenworthy, et al., 2013).

For most, social thinking is hard-wired at birth – but, not for all

Brain messageBeing able to interpret the messages behind the actions and words of others and how to appropriately respond develops naturally over time for many. However, for a variety of reasons ranging from disadvantage, neglect, trauma-based responses, or disability, increasing numbers of children are finding it much harder to think socially and use their social tools in environments when it really counts (Cornelius-White, 2007).

We now understand that the impact of attaching to peers is significant. Without reasonable social success children and adolescents are more likely to be at risk from emotional, mental health difficulties and a greater tendency for future anti-social behaviour. (Hay et al., 2004). The ability to create and foster friendship, accompanied by opportunities to feel accepted by others, is significant.

The research highlights a few 'key assumptions' concerning our efforts to build social and emotional literacy in human beings. They are;

Social and emotional capabilities are completely teachable. These capabilities include learning to; go with the flow, reading social and emotional play, increasing empathic skills and improving the reciprocal nature of interpersonal interactions.

All human beings benefit from being taught SEL skills or being immersed in environments where there is a tangible social and emotional framework or agenda.

While teaching SEL advantages everyone, SEL has proven to be significantly helpful for children with disability; higher-functioning forms of autism spectrum, language disorder, specific learning difficulties, auditory processing disorder, ADHD, reactive behaviours, anxiety, shyness, social phobia and so on (Kenworthy et al., 2013).

Academic performances of students reflect a 10% gain in achievement in classrooms where teachers are committed to an obvious SEL structure.

Evidence-based programs always work best (

John Hattie, in Visible Learning, stated, 'Social skills programs can make a positive difference to social outcomes' (Hattie, 2009, p. 150). His evidence, based on 84 studies and 27,064 students, indicates that the most effective programs employ coaching, direct modelling and feedback, and a focus on individual peer relationship issues. Studies continue to add a growing evidence-base for SEL Training for all children and adolescents (Koning, et al., 2013).

And, what surprises many is that these initiatives provided in the early years have a long, lasting effect well into the high school years (Kenwothy, et al., 2013). Finally, working within the context of a SEL program or framework permits us to build deeper relationships with students, and offers possibilities to arrange better relationships between students themselves.

Always consider - is it a 'skill deficit' or a 'performance delay'?

A judgement for educators to make is whether an individual's social/emotional struggle is a 'skill deficit' or a 'performance delay. A 'skill deficit' means the skill has not been taught and therefore is not present. The premise is that if we teach the skills and embed them within the individual, group or school culture, then over time, they should become a part of their performance.

A 'performance delay' means there is evidence that the skills have been well-taught, but the student is not yet able to perform them in situations when they would be useful. Students on the Autism spectrum often illustrate a 'performance delay. Many have received and engaged in quality social and emotional education, but struggle to apply it, and will for some time. It is a work in progress and we persist; gently, gently.


Attwood, T., 2007, The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

Coughlin, S., 2016, What Couples Who Communicate Well Do Differently
<, June 2018>

Cornelius-White, J. 2007. Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), Pages 113-143.

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<, June 2018>

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Hattie, J., 2009, Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, New York.

Hay, D., Payne, A., Chadwick A., 2004, Peer relations in childhood, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45: 84–108.

Jenkins, H.J., Batgidou, E., 2003, Developing social strategies to overcome peer rejection of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8 (1): 16–24.

Kaufman, G., Flanagan, M., 2015, 'A psychologically "embedded" approach to designing games for prosocial causes' Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(3), article 1

Kenworthy, L., Anthony, L.G., Naiman, D, Cannon, L., Wills, MC, Luong-Tran, C, Werner, M.A., Alexander, KC, Strang, J, Bal, E, Sokoloff, JL, Wallace, GL., 2013 Randomized controlled effectiveness trial of executive function intervention for children on the autism spectrum. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2013 Nov 21

Koning, C., Magill-Evans, J., Volden, J., and Dick, B., 2013, Efficacy of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy-based social skills intervention for school-aged boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 7 (2013) Pages 1282-1290.

Nelis, D., Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., Hansenne, M., 2009, 'Increasing emotional intelligence: (How) is it possible?'
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Verduyn, C.M., Lord, W. and Forrest, G.C., 1990, 'Social skills training in schools: an evaluation study', Adolescence, 13: 3–16.