Prosocial qualities like empathy, kindness, and compassion were once thought to be largely heritable, based on genetics such that one had more or less of these qualities at birth and this remained fixed over time. Evidence emerging over the last two and a half decades has transformed this notion.
Not only do human beings exhibit an impressive set of prosocial tendencies at or near birth, but these qualities develop and can be shaped by parents, educators, and the wider community through intentional efforts. In short, a new science is emerging that shows prosocial qualities associated with the “heart” are both natural to human beings and can be cultivated through education.
Thanks in part to the research of Mind & Life Institute-supported scientists (some of whom presented at the conference), prosocial capacities are now known to develop and interact with cognitive and emotional development. This shift in the understanding of human nature calls into question the traditional model of education, so often summarized as focused on the “3 Rs”—‘reading, writing, and arithmetic.’ The old model’s exclusive emphasis on the cognitive development of the child overlooked the role of the social and emotional skills in contributing not only to academic success, but nurturing qualities of human goodness.
Since the 1990s, a growing movement has developed to correct this omission, promoting an educational paradigm that has gained popularity worldwide called social and emotional learning (SEL). Proponents of SEL assert that intelligence has not only cognitive but also social, emotional, and even ethical components. These other kinds of skills and dispositions—such as the ability to regulate one’s emotions, to understand another person’s perspective, or to resolve conflicts peacefully—are as important, if not more important, they claim, than cognitive knowledge for producing happiness and success in the classroom, in the workplace, and in life.
“The rules for work are changing. We’re being judged by a new yardstick: not just by how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but by how well we handle ourselves and each other… The new standard takes for granted having enough intellectual ability and technical know-how to do our jobs; it focuses instead on personal qualities, such as initiative and empathy, adaptability and persuasiveness… In other words, what matters is a different way of being smart.”
Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence
Increasingly in the United States and other nations, school districts, towns, and even states are incorporating these principles into legislation. To help children develop these skills, educators rely on innovative and evidence-based SEL frameworks, curricula, and training programs.
How Effective is SEL?
What have researchers learned about the effectiveness of SEL interventions? Summarizing key findings was University of British Columbia Professor of Education Kimberly Schonert-Reichl. Schonert-Reichl cited a group of researchers who examined 213 studies of school-based universal SEL programs involving more than 270,000 students. This 2011 meta-analysis conducted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has become a landmark in the field. Their findings? “Compared to controls, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile point gain in achievement,” said Schonert-Reichl, who is Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership.
“What they found was remarkable,” she added. “The children in these programs improved in their social and emotional skills—like showing empathy, concern, and kindness to others—and they got better grades. They decreased in aggressive behavior and emotional distress.”
A second study focused on follow-up data to see what happened to students after participating in SEL programs. The analysis included 82 school-based SEL programs involving about 98,000 students and looked at program impacts 6 months to 18 years after the program ended. Students who participated in SEL programs were found to do better than control students on social-emotional skills, attitudes, and well-being at follow-up. This research and other on-going worldwide studies show that SEL helps students, Schonert-Reichl affirmed. “They’re more likely to graduate from high school and earn a college degree and enter as citizens into our world. The evidence is very strong.”
Getting SEL into Schools
This kind of evidence has driven the spread of SEL programs into 34 countries worldwide. In the United States alone, SEL has reached 1.5 million teachers and 25 million students; half the states include SEL in their learning standards either explicitly or implicitly, Schonert-Reichl reported. Her home province of British Columbia, Canada has been particularly receptive. In 2017, the B.C. Ministry of Education re-designed school curricula province-wide to define new core competencies. (Schonert-Reichl served as an SEL advisor on this project.)
“Now the law requires that, in addition to competency in thinking and communication, school children up to the age of 18 will need to develop personal and social responsibility competencies,” she explained. This requires that programs focus on personal awareness and responsibility; empathy for others; and social awareness and responsibility, which includes caring for the community and environment. Beyond an emphasis on student learning, Schonert-Reichl underscored the importance of a ‘whole systems’ approach that also includes promoting the emotional well-being of teachers and creating caring and nurturing school environments.
What has been happening in British Columbia is really remarkable,” said Schonert-Reichl. “We’ve made great strides, but it hasn’t been easy, and it’s taken a long time—about 15 years.” She went on to identify five forces behind that success (see sidebar).
With this contextual backdrop, Chapter 3 explores recent increases in anxiety and depression among young people in the U.S. and other nations, and the role of SEL in preparing students to identify and manage complex emotions.