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The Need for Social-Emotional Skills in Elementary School

SEL programs are essential for healthy emotional and social development.

Key points

  • Children need to feel safe, connected, and respected for optimal learning to occur in school.
  • Teaching social-emotional skills helps to address these needs.
  • While most parents now want such programs, some have political beliefs about what might be included in them.
  • Parents need to be involved in the establishment of such programs.

Every aspect of a child’s behavior in the classroom is influenced by their emotions, some of which help foster learning while others inhibit it. Additionally, their behavior is further influenced by their social skills. Yet, few schools provide the education necessary to develop vital skills in recognizing, accepting, understanding, and managing emotions or to build essential social skills. Teaching skills to understand and manage feelings is essential for the sake of children, both for their emotional well-being and for enhancing their openness to learning.

Emotional intelligence entails making room for and giving ourselves permission to feel uncomfortable feelings. Ignoring them diminishes our capacity to connect with our authentic selves. This is often a major underpinning of emotional disturbance, such as anxiety, depression, and anger.

Social skills inform children's interaction with classmates, teachers, and administrators. Together with emotional skills, they can enhance active presence and participation or withdrawal and isolation.

Recognizing, accepting, understanding, and managing our emotions is important for every aspect of adult life. Even when we believe our beliefs are predominantly influenced by our reasoning and logic, it is our emotions that play a dominant role in forming these beliefs.

A mega-study of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students showed an 11 percent increase in these skills following their participation (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki et al., 2011). Compared to controls, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance.

Another mega-study of 82 programs involving 97,406 students also performed follow-up assessments that ranged from 6 months to 18 years following participation in the programs (Taylor, Oberle, Durlak et al., 2017). Participants continued to show significant gains compared to controls in social-emotional skills, attitudes, and indicators of well-being.

Source: Milkos/123RF
Children identifying their feelings
Source: Milkos/123RF

Personal experience

I started my professional career as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx in the late '60s. I very quickly learned that optimal learning can only occur when children feel safe, connected, and respected. This requires creating an atmosphere that supports the cultivation of such values. Achieving this task depends not only on the teacher’s emotional intelligence and disciplinary skills but also on the children’s ability to identify and regulate their emotions.

Unfortunately, the emphasis then, as it still is in many schools now, is to focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. And so, I incorporated the teaching of social and emotional skills into those subject areas. When a character in a story was angry, I helped the children explore the reasons that triggered such anger. I helped them to understand that anger is a reaction to some form of threat that might trigger negative feelings.

I emphasized identifying emotions and validating their feelings in an effort to help increase their capacity to sit with them. I also pointed out that having feelings is distinctly different from acting on them. I underscored the need to pause to reflect on their feelings so as to respond rather than react to them.

On one occasion, all students attended a presentation by the neighborhood policemen in our school auditorium. When we returned to the homeroom, I asked my class to write a composition about the police.

One child immediately showed anger in his facial expression and called out, “I’m not going to write a composition about police. I hate them!”

I calmly responded, “So, if that’s how you feel, write about why you feel that way, and we’ll discuss it afterward.”

His tense, angry facial expression morphed into an excited smile, reflecting great surprise. “Really?” he responded.

I said, “This is an exercise in writing.”

Subsequently, he produced the longest composition he had ever written. He was clearly driven by his feelings and felt empowered to be authentic in his writing. I reviewed it and then invited him to read it out loud. He cited several reasons based on his observations of how some police had treated some people in the neighborhood—from cursing at children to smacking a drug user to the racial slurs he heard them make about residents in the South Bronx.

I validated how those experiences could make him angry and then helped him to recognize the hurt, sadness, and disappointment behind his anger. I then asked the others to describe situations in which they were glad to have police. In this way, I wanted to help him and the class see the more complicated picture, including the fact that some of his classmates reported some very favorable interactions with the police.

Fortunately, I had been a psychology major. Additionally, from my own therapy, I learned a lot about emotions and the need to feel safe when discussing them. And most importantly, I learned that being able to talk about and label them was key to self-awareness and emotional regulation.

The challenge

Unfortunately, not every teacher has a sufficient understanding of psychology to address such issues. And this makes sense when they have so much pressure from the administration and parents about what should be taught. However, whether or not they are directly taught, children learn a great deal about emotions and social skills from their parents, peers, teachers, reading, administrators, religious leaders, and the media. Only when we clearly define these skills can we provide children with those that are most beneficial for their emotional and social-emotional development.

Teachers are currently experiencing a major challenge in terms of tightened constrictions regarding what they can teach. More than ever, they are being forced to teach in a way that responds to the comfort of parents rather than what children might need to learn.

Now, as when I taught, parents are concerned about the teaching of emotions. They may believe it is their responsibility to teach their children about feelings. However, just like many educators, they may lack the knowledge and skills to do so.

Currently, many schools have even reduced the funding for social-emotional skills. This is a response to parents who may have certain political beliefs about what might be included in the curriculum. Some are concerned that their children will be forced to learn empathy for others when they view such learning as a product of “Wokeness.”


Teachers, school administrators, and mental health personnel need to emphasize the need for such learning. They may need to educate parents about the role emotional intelligence plays in learning and in emotional and social development. Such information should also provide a clearly stated message about what will be included in such a curriculum. And as found in one broad survey, the vast majority of parents want SEL programs in schools (although they have issues with the title of such programs) (Northern and Petrilli, 2021). This report also emphasizes the need to involve parents in the discussion of these programs.

Including the cultivation of social-emotional skills in the classroom helps provide a greater sense of safety and openness to education in all areas of the school curriculum. In doing so, it provides an atmosphere that is conducive to curiosity, motivation, and learning. It helps children to be more fully present in the learning process. And with presence comes a sense of connection that is essential for healthy development, including respect for oneself and others.


Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., et. al. (2011) The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: a meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, Vol. 82, (1), 405-432.

Taylor, R., Oberle, E., Durlak, J., et. al. (2017) Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: a meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, Vol. 88 (4), 1156-1171.

Northern, A. and Petrilli, M. (2021) How to sell SEL: parents and the politics of social-emotional learning.

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