Children’s social and emotional development has long received insufficient attention among educators because it was seen as mainly the purview of parents or mental health professionals, and perhaps, not significantly related to academic achievement, the primary mission of schools. That has begun to change significantly as research supports the assertion that children do much better academically when their social and emotional needs are addressed in systematic ways, as part of a school’s curriculum and organized activities. The relationship between students’ social and emotional development and their academic development is a strong and inseparable one.
Neuroscience has established that the emotional centers of the brain are closely and tightly connected to the academic centers of the brain. How students experience school and learning influences how students learn and achieve. Students do not compartmentalize themselves into academic school selves for the purpose of learning and social-emotional selves for the purpose of non-academic interactions. Learning and emotions are interconnected in neurological webs that neuroscientists are learning much more about. Academic stimuli when processed trigger emotional responses, pleasant or unpleasant. Emotional events when processed influence academic learning, positively or negatively. Thus, students who experience overall school success tend to demonstrate higher levels of what Goleman calls “emotional intelligence” than their less successful peers.
Advocates of social and emotional learning identify five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making as essential to success in school and in life. Combining these five core competencies with academic competence in an intentional and coordinated way in the school context and school activities facilitates effective social and emotional learning (SEL).
The role of the school leader is critical to the effective implementation of SEL initiatives in schools. For SEL programs to be successful, it is important to know and understand school leaders’ perceptions of the value and benefits of promoting social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools, to identify and document effective school leadership strategies for creating school cultures and school climates that support SEL and for school leaders to know how to document SEL related student outcomes. It is important to ask and answer the following questions:
- How much do educational leaders know and understand about the relationship between academic learning and social and emotional learning?
- How much do educational leaders value that relationship and are influenced in their leadership roles by it?
- What leadership strategies do educational leaders use to foster school contexts that support SEL?
- What evidence is there that schools in which educational leaders embrace SEL, as an important aspect of their leadership approach, experience significant student growth academically, socially, and emotionally?
As noted, evidence supports the conclusion that social competence and emotional well-being are significantly related to academic achievement. The coordinated and clearly articulated implementation of social and emotional learning (SEL) supportive services and a commensurate supportive school culture and climate are hallmarks of effective SEL school leadership. For some school leaders, the implementation of coordinated social and emotional learning (SEL) activities in conjunction with rigorous academic best practices appears to be a challenge. High-quality SEL combined with high quality rigorous academics sometimes seems paradoxical. Yet, as we have seen, the evidence shows rather conclusively that schools can address students’ social and emotional learning and their academic learning well, and that when they do, there are significant academic benefits as well other school-related performance benefits.
School leaders are to be encouraged to expand and strengthen their efforts to implement SEL. Supporting and facilitating SEL must be seen as a very valuable and important aspect of their leadership role. As building leaders, they are often recognized and looked up to by their colleagues, staff, students, and parents as setting the tone and establishing the climate and context for meaningful learning to occur. The principal’s role in promoting social and emotional learning is not always clear, in large part because the benefits of efforts to promote social and emotional learning in schools are not always as clear as the benefits from academic and instructional efforts. However, a growing number of school leaders appreciate the implacable linkage between social and emotional learning and academic learning. They continually adjust and adapt their leadership strategies to implement SEL most effectively and promote and support the importance of evidence of the value of SEL in their schools by examining process and outcome data among students and staff — and in many instances among parents as well.