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Will Your Leadership Help Teachers Develop Social-Emotional Skills in Their Students?

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Most of us are celebrating the growing acceptance that social and emotional skills contribute to the ability of students to learn. The focus on the health of the school environment, with the intention being helping students develop their social and emotional skills, is both important and heartening.  Attention to child development as a necessary basis for successful learning is essential (ASCD, Pica). Students are better prepared to learn when they are able to be present, and give their whole attention to the learning experience.

Most of us have assumed that the kind of academic learning that goes on in school has little or nothing to do with one's emotions or social environment.  Now neuroscience is telling us exactly the opposite. The emotional centers of the brain are intricately interwoven with the neocortical areas involved in cognitive learning (Zins etal. p. vii).  

In the last few years, an attempt to extinguish bullying has taken center stage.  Few disagree with the premise that bullying is harmful and must not be accepted in our schools.  But, a narrow focus on bullying can be a distraction from the bigger value of overall social emotional health. Students' "emotional centers of the brain" have an impact on cognitive learning.

The manner in which attention to the social emotional health of students takes place within the building depends on the leader's ability to create a safe and encouraging environment in which all people, adults and children, are resepcted. The manner in which this translates to the children is through their teachers. While we celebrate the attention to the "whole child" and "social-emotional skills" we have to attend to the fact that this is another set of skills to be learned by and implemented by the teachers. 

EdWeek recently reported results of a survey they administered in April to a "random sample of edweek.org registrants who had previously identified themselves as classroom teachers, instructional specialists, or school-based administrators." In it they report:

Of the responding administrators, 60.5 percent said more than half of their school's students have strong social and emotional skills. Of responding teachers, 46.5 percent said the majority of students at their schools have such skills.

Both statistics indicate a large portion of the student population is without these skills. Teachers, according to this survey, view of the state of social emotional skills sets of their students differently than their leaders do. In our view, that is also a problem. 

Learn How to Teach Social Emotional Skills
We are expecting teachers to be responsible for developing these skills in their students. When teachers were newly expected to teach to the Common Core Standards, some sort of training was expected and offered. When new academic programs are offered, even if only one training session is made available, it is understood that teachers need to be supported in their implementation of new methods. To ask them to attend to the social-emotional development of their students without providing them with the environment in which social and emotional health is paramount is simply unreasonable.

It is not a matter of a training  alone. It is about modeling. Then, the creation and maintenance of an environment in which social and emotional health is highly valued and practiced follows. More importantly, a building leader cannot expect teachers to know how to develop these skills in children. Some of them don't have their own models.  It is not a shared skill unless it is embedded in the culture through practices and policies.

If we expect teachers to know how to help children develop their social-emotional skills, we must offer them knowledge, experience, and support. There has to be a guarantee that all students are receiving this type of learning exists through shared understandings and values that influence the practices of all who work and learn there operate within the school.    

Take empathy as an example.  Empathy is an important social-emotional skill.  Some argue it is an essential one.  This is such an important ability that the lack of it is directly connected to the ability of those who "commit mean spirited crimes" (Goleman, p. 106).  By learning how to express, model, and teach how to be empathetic as educators, we have the ability to affect this issue of bullying within our schools.  If we are effective, we may even be able to reach beyond school years and, ultimately, reduce the numbers of those who cause hurt others throughout their lives. The field of study of how to develop social competence has continued to grow. It is not a simple read of a chapter or a one-time PD experience. 

People's emotions are rarely put into words; far more often they are expressed through other cues.  The key to intuiting another's feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels:  tone of voice, gesture, facial expression, and the like. (Goleman, p. 96).

Leaders Will Make the Difference
Efforts to stop bullying by posting "No Bullying Here" signs and encouraging teachers and students to instruct students that bullying is hurtful helps.  But while the presidential race picks up and we become numb to name calling and ugly speech, our leverage weakens. Unless schools become environments in which empathy is taught, modeled, and valued, schools will not be safe.

Learning is a dynamic experience; safety is essential in environments where risk-taking, a fundamental facet of learning, is expected. Children deserve to come to school and be met by happy, passionate educators who welcome them into the learning environment.  Passing the buck has no place here.  Everyone has a responsibility to learn how to teach and model social emotional skills. Offering teachers a hand in their learning is a good first step. They are at the ready...remember, they are the ones in the EdWeek study who recognized, more than the leaders, that more than half of their students are lacking in social emotional skills.  Leadership will make a difference.


Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional Intelligence. New York:  Random House
Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R.P., Wang, M.C., Walberg, H.J. (2004). Building Academic Success:  Social and Emotional Learning. New York: Teachers College Press

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