Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a process for teaching basic emotional competency to young people and adults. When taught and modeled correctly, students learn emotional self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, and empathy. These are the foundational life skills essential to relationship and career success.
Research shows that SEL not only improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, but it also increases prosocial behaviors (such as kindness, sharing, and empathy), improves student attitudes toward school, and reduces depression and stress among students (Durlak et al., 2011).
Research suggests that EI is even more influential than intelligence in predicting teacher effectiveness and student learning (Patel, 2017). EI has also been found to improve the well-being of teachers by helping them cope with negative emotions and feel personally fulfilled in their work (Fernández-Berrocal et al., 2017).
The concept is good, but the execution is difficult. Mastering emotional intelligence is an intense self-development process. It takes effort, motivation, and time. For overwhelmed teachers, taking on this type of self-development project seems absurd.
Administrators have also tried to short-cut the self-improvement process, believing that one-off workshops by outside consultants will move the needle.
I’ve attended in-service workshops where teachers were supposed to be taught SEL principles. I was dismayed by the substance and method used by the workshop presenters. First, what I saw was death-by-PowerPoint. Second, the trainers failed to demonstrate emotional intelligence. Third, the training delivered as a group workshop did not include any one-on-one coaching often needed for EI mastery. It was a check-the-box exercise without regard to actual EI development.
The other problem, in my experience, is that many teachers lack deep emotional intelligence and scoff at the notion that they need to develop it to teach SEL.
Why it is crucial for teachers to develop their EI before teaching SEL:
Children learn emotional competency and develop emotional intelligence by imitating good role models. If a teacher cannot model emotional self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, and cognitive and affective empathy, the students have no opportunity to learn from daily examples. The concepts become abstract, non-actionable ideas that make no sense to the student. Further, to the degree that a teacher's behavior deviates from emotionally intelligent behavior, the students see the hypocrisy and dismiss SEL as not credible or useful.
On the other hand, in my experience, when teachers learn the foundational skills that lead to emotional competency and use those skills in the classroom, everything changes. The students become loyal, conscientious, hard-working, and motivated. Classroom control is no longer an issue, and discipline problems disappear. Emotionally intelligent teachers create an encouraging atmosphere in the classroom, paying close attention to their students’ emotions. They recognize that humans, especially children, are emotional beings, not rational beings. They are experts at listening and have mastered the four levels of reflective listening: mirroring, paraphrasing, core messaging, and affect labeling. They demonstrate emotional self-awareness and self-regulation through openness, authenticity, and vulnerability. They understand and have mastered the skills of cognitive and affective empathy.
These teachers incorporate emotional intelligence in their teaching. They not only talk about emotional competency, they model it as well. I have worked with English teachers who used situations and characters in literature to illustrate aspects of emotional intelligence or failures of emotional intelligence that led to the story outcome. Not only did the students learn how to critique and analyze literature, they learned the underlying lessons of emotional intelligence.
Research shows that teachers with higher emotional intelligence have emotionally better relationships with their students. Moreover, the higher the teachers’ level of emotional intelligence, the better they are assessed by their students. Teachers with higher levels of emotional intelligence have positive relationships with their students, showing higher quality communicative and interpersonal abilities.
In my experience, school administrators do not see this dichotomy and do not see the value of investing in deep emotional competency training for their faculty. Likewise, in discussions with university education administrators, I have learned that university professors teaching student teachers show little interest in teaching emotional competency skills. I fear that until there is a fundamental shift in our cultural attitudes towards emotions and emotional intelligence, we will be fighting an uphill battle to introduce true emotional intelligence into the school curriculum.