Misconceptions about Social and Emotional Learning – Misconception Two

Misconception #2: “Social and Emotional Learning Can’t be Taught at School”

Main Author:  Jeremy Burrus, Ph.D
Supporting Author: Jason Way, Ph.D
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

This post is the third in a series about misconceptions we often hear about social and emotional learning (SEL). In each post, we will tackle a common misunderstanding about SEL and attempt to clarify some misconceptions. The first two posts in the series concern the measurement of SEL. In this post, we’ll discuss the belief that social and emotional learning can’t be taught at school.

At ACT, we define the skills associated with social and emotional learning (SEL) as, “Interpersonal, self-regulatory, and task-related behaviors important for successful performance in education and workplace settings”. In short, these skills concern your ability to be empathetic and work well with others (interpersonal), be self-controlled and able to handle stress (self-regulatory), and hardworking and organized (task-related).

We occasionally encounter the belief that these skills cannot be taught at school. Although we can’t be exactly sure where this belief comes from, we suspect that there are at least two sources. The first is the common misconception that our characteristic ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving are “set” at a very early age and do not change; you can’t teach what can’t be changed. A child is born with a certain level of empathy, a critic might say, and there’s nothing that can be done to improve it. The second is the belief that only academic content like math, science, and ELA can be taught at school. Both of these beliefs are misconceptions, and misconceptions, like social and emotional skills, can be changed. We’ll attempt to do so below by tackling each belief one-at-a-time.

False belief 1: Our characteristics are set at an early age and don’t change

We will address this false belief in two ways – first appealing to everyday experience, and next by discussing the research.

Everyday experience

Let’s do two thought exercises. First, stop reading for a minute and think about your life from childhood until now. After a minute or so, go on to the next sentence.

Would you say you’ve changed as a person? How have you changed since childhood? Are you more patient? Are you harder working? Are you better able to handle everyday stressors? Are you less energetic? If you answered yes to any of these questions, or if you identified any other ways you’ve changed since childhood, then it’s probably the case that one’s characteristics actually do change over time.

For our second thought exercise, spend a minute or so thinking about the types of things parents attempt to teach their children. After a minute or so, go on to the next sentence.

What types of things do parents teach their children? Undoubtedly, they teach their children to get along well with other people (interpersonal skills), to regulate their emotions when things don’t go their way (self-regulatory skills), and to work hard (task-related skills). Parents have been teaching these social and emotional skills for thousands of years. If these skills cannot be changed, it’s likely that parents would have given up teaching them by now.

The research

Research evidence is accumulating that overwhelmingly supports the notion that our personal characteristics change over time. For example, one meta-analysis found that people’s characteristics naturally change throughout the lifespan. That is, people tend to mature as they grow older, becoming more conscientious, agreeable, emotionally stable, socially dominant, and open to new experience.

Not only do people change naturally, research also finds that people can change their characteristics purposely. Our characteristics can change as a result of more intensive activities such as clinical interventions, or through much more simple activities such as undergoing a series of behavioral challenges. If you want to be more extraverted, for example, challenge yourself to introduce yourself to someone new every day (practicing appropriate social distancing, of course).

We can see from both our own experience and from the existing research evidence that people can change.

False belief 2: Social and emotional skills can’t be taught at school

We will tackle this belief by going straight to the research. There are now at least four meta-analyses that show that school-based SEL programs are indeed effective at improving student social and emotional skills. Importantly, research finds that the effects of these programs persist over long periods of time. ACT’s own SEL curriculum includes a series of easy-to-administer lessons in a blended learning format and has been included on the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs guide. Additionally, a recent nationally representative study found that a brief (less than one hour) online school-based intervention significantly improved students’ growth mindset (the belief that one’s skills can be improved).

Furthermore, the improvement in skills associated with SEL programs has important downstream implications that suggest they will compliment, rather than detract from, traditional academic instruction. Research finds that students who participate in SEL programming have an 11% gain in achievement test scores, and another study of six SEL programs found that every $1 spent on SEL programs led to an average return on investment of $11 for society. Additionally, higher social and emotional skills in middle and high school, as measured by ACT Tessera, are associated with better grades, school climate, disciplinary rates, and attendance (in high school only).

Social and emotional skills CAN be taught in school

When people hold misconceptions, it’s important to address them. Why? Because behavior often follows belief. SEL programs are important and can help students greatly if they are given the support they deserve. This support won’t happen, however, if people think the programs are ineffective. The next time you hear someone say that social and emotional skills can’t be taught in school, ask them to think about how they have changed in their own life, tell them about the research behind SEL programs, or just direct them here. Their minds, just like our students’ skills, can be changed.

Jeremy Burrus, PhD

Jeremy Burrus, PhD

Senior Director, Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning Research Jeremy Burrus is the Senior Director of ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (SEALs). Before coming to ACT, he was a Principal Research Scientist at ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments, and prior to that he was a Research Scientist at Educational Testing Service. He graduated with a PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2006, and was a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School in New York City from 2006-2008. His main research interests are in developing innovative assessments of social and emotional learning skills, cognitive biases, and cross-cultural competence.