Building Social & Emotional Competence

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One can find, in almost every school (or district) mission statement, an intention to prepare students for citizenship and success in their everyday life experiences. This means that the school not only intends to provide an academically engaging learning experience in the core curriculum but also has placed equal priority on providing a high-quality education that builds students’ competence through the social and emotional, exploratory, and elective curriculums.

While there has been much attention, resources, schedule time, and materials allocated to exploratory and elective curriculum during the school day, less attention, resources, and time have been allocated to the social and emotional curriculum. In the past ten years, however, there has been a growing recognition supported by a large and growing body of research that the social and emotional curriculum is not only as important as the core curriculum, it is also an important contributor to high academic engagement and success (Day & Connor, 2017; Durlak et al., 2011; Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011; Duckworth et al., 2007). And with that recognition comes the understanding that time given to teaching the social and emotional curriculum is not a distraction from, an addition to, or a usurper of important learning, but a key and critical component of a high-quality education that prepares students in align­ment with the school’s (or district’s) mission and intention.

All learning is social and emotional. Students need explicit instruction that helps them develop and demonstrate social and emotional competence in order to be successful while learning and in friendships, play, work, and other activities outside and beyond school. Competence is a cluster of related skills, knowledge, abilities, and dispo­sitions that enables a person to act effectively in a given role, task, responsibility, situation, or circumstance.

These social and emotional competencies are needed for almost every social rela­tionship and for success in the workplace (Gauvain, 2018; Fehr & Schurtenberger, 2018); for improving willingness to seek help, express needs, and develop self-confidence (Saint Louis, 2019); for the ability to contribute to a civil classroom, school, workplace, community, and soci­ety, which is a prerequisite for global cit­izenship (Williams, 2008); for becoming a better peer, friend, colleague, and family member (Miller, 2019); and for achievement in school and accomplishment outside of school (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).

Competence is an indicator that a student (or adult) has sufficient knowledge and skills that enables them to be successful with increasing frequency and regularity in a specific area. Social and emotional com­petence is developmental and grows over time and with practice. It’s not enough to say to a student “Be cooperative,” be­cause cooperation skills are different at age 7 than they are at age 12; students learn the developmental skills for coop­eration because we deliberately and ex­plicitly teach them, much in the same way they learn math, reading, or writing skills.

Building students’ social and emotional competence requires (1) envisioning and creating an environment that supports learning and practicing social and emo­tional skills; (2) building adult knowledge and skills and providing resources to ex­plicitly teach social and emotional skills; and (3) prioritizing resources—instruc­tional time and materials—to ensure that students have the best opportunities to learn and practice these skills.

Social and emotional learning happens when students are provided the time to learn and practice developmentally appropriate skills that prepare them for citizenship and for success in everyday life, and when educators are provided the pro­fessional development and well-designed curriculum to deliver instruction. No one is born with these skills; they must be taught, learned, and practiced. As parents and educators, most of us can draw on our own experiences as evidence that social and emotional learning skills benefit us in learning, work, life, play, relationships, and business, and in managing adversity and meeting challenges and difficult cir­cumstances with hope and resilience and a greater sense of efficacy to solve our problems or successfully resolve conflict.


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