How Students Become Socially and Emotionally Competent

Go Back to Journal

Research in and outside of education continues to show that students who are socially and emotionally competent perform better in the classroom, get along better with peers, and are more engaged and positive about school (Durlak et al., 2015). Students who are socially and emotional com­petent have the learned abil­ity to interact with others (social) and manage their inner self (emotional) as demonstrated through five competencies: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibili­ty, empathy, and self-control (CARES). How can we help all students learn the skills to become socially and emo­tionally competent? The an­swer to this question is by emphasizing skill development, which is the focus of this article.

To develop a social and emotional competency like cooperation, the learner must first develop the col­lection of grade-appropriate skills that comprise the com­petency. For example, the research-based Standards for a Course of Study iden­tifies five standards that cover the competency of cooperation: 1) able to make and keep friends, 2) works with others toward a com­mon goal, 3) resolves dif­ferences quickly, 4) cooper­ates as a group leader or a member of the group, and 5) exhibits helpfulness. Thus, if a teacher wants to teach students to be cooperative, after identifying a standard, such as “able to make and keep friends,” the next step is to identify the grade-ap­propriate skills needed to meet that standard (e.g., at kindergarten the skill is “Welcomes or invites oth­ers to join in”), and then help the students develop those skills through practice and use over time to become competent in cooperation.

Research teaches us several important considerations when trying to create devel­opmental skills in students (Ji Young Na et al., 2016). First, skill development is impacted by the cognitive, social, and emotional state of the students. Second, it depends on the interac­tion between the environ­ment and students. Third, it is highly context-specific and uneven in its trajectory, with students taking steps both forward and backward during the process. Fourth, mastery is rarely, if ever, at­tained. The four stages of skill development model (Figure 1) describes the psycholog­ical states that the individual learner progresses through when trying to learn and develop a new skill. Using the “Welcomes or invites others to join in” skill as an example, a stu­dent will progress through four stages that describe their consciousness about the skill and their level of ability using the skill.

How can this model be applied in the classroom when teaching social and emotional skills to students to help them move through the skill development stages?

The short-term instructional goal should be to raise students’ awareness of the need for the social and emotional skills, pro­vide the foundational knowledge needed for the students to prepare to use the skills, and build students’ confidence as they initially try the skill (Stages 1 and 2).

The medium-term instructional goal should be to provide students with opportunities to intentionally practice the skills in the classroom, in non-classroom spaces, and outside of school (Stage 3).

The longer-term instructional goal should be to continue to provide students with the opportunities to practice the skills in different contexts, circumstances, and conditions so that the skills eventually become second nature (Stage 4).

With these instructional goals in mind, it is clear that to develop social and emo­tional skills in students requires teachers to have not only a long-term instructional plan but also empathy and patience. But the effort is worth it since as these skills develop, students not only become socially and emotionally competent but the positive effects spill over to all aspects of their lives as they become better students, peers, and citizens.


  • Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Gullotta, T. P. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. New York: Guilford.
  • Ji Young Na, C., Wilkinson, K., Karny, M., Blackstone, S., & Stifter, C. (2016). A synthesis of relevant literature on the development of emotional competence: Implications for eesign of augmentative and alternative communication systems. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 25(3), 441–452.