The Study That We Can’t Ignore

According to a new study that was recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, notable in both its scale and depth, emotional intelligence is an essential part of academic success—from kindergarten to college. The study clearly showed that those students who can grasp and manage their emotions tend to  earn higher grades and perform better on standardized tests.

The study was monumental in its scope, a meta-analysis of every relevant study researchers could find—162 in all—that cover 42,000 students in 27 countries.

“Because of the large number of samples, I’m certain of these results,” said Carolyn MacCann, an associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia and the lead author of the study. “It isn’t a study of one school in one country.” For MacCann, the big takeaway is this: teaching emotional intelligence skills doesn’t detract from students’ academics—it boosts them.

The findings serve as an important boost to the growing consensus among researchers that emotional intelligence skills are not only important for future success in the workplace but also children’s academic success in school today. These results will also impact both face-to-face and online mental health therapy.

For many in the field, the findings were no surprise. They corroborate what is already known. Social-Emotional (SEL) skills can be taught, and when schools faithfully embed SEL into the school day, it improves the lives of the children’s lives, the school culture, and even teacher well-being. Schools report increased academic success, healthier relationships between teachers and students, and less aggression.

While IQ or raw intelligence is still the best predictor of academic success, the study’s findings have shown that understanding and managing emotions is not far behind.   Generally speaking, teachers are under intense pressure to teach the assigned curriculum and test the students’ knowledge. Until recently, the movement towards social-emotional programs was seen as a distraction. This study shows that there is a close link between excellent emotional skills and academic success.

The Choice We Need to Make

Not long ago, Marc Brackett, a professor in the Yale Child Study Center and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Diana Divecha, an assistant clinical professor in the Yale Child Study Center and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence gave a talk to a group of mental health professionals about the importance of teaching of emotional intelligence to children in school, in both face-to-face and online mental health therapy.

After their talk, a leading child psychiatrist approached them to applaud their appeal to weave SEL into schools. The psychiatrist added: “We’re going to need another 8,000 child psychiatrists in the United States to deal with all of the mental health problems our children are having.”

“You misunderstood us,” Marc responded. “We want to put you all out of business.”

The goal of those in the SEL field is to integrate teaching SEL into children’s education, so the lives of these children are enhanced, and crises will become increasingly rare. But, unfortunately, as the eminent psychiatrist pointed out, we still have a long way to go before those who deliver face-to-face and online mental health therapy become obsolete.

Does it Really Make Sense to Invest?

The statistics speak for themselves. American Youth ranks in the bottom twenty-five percent of youth around the world when it comes to well-being and satisfaction with life. In the past two decades, suicides for the 15-19-year-old age group have risen nearly fifty percent. More than thirty-three percent of first-year college students have a diagnosed mental health condition. And our schools still have significant harassment and bullying problems.

So the question remains. If the value of SEL has been recognized both informally and formally, why is it taking so long to implement programs in the schools?

Irrespective of the widespread support among students, parents, and educators, and a firm grounding in science, SEL isn’t considered as valuable as science or math. Emotions are often marginalized as a woman’s interest. This has a lot to do with the predominant view in society that emotions are in the women’s domain and should remain there.

What’s more, if most adults don’t understand the importance of regulating their emotions, how can they be expected to value regulating the feelings of their children?

Many of us live with the outdated belief that the optimal way to get children to perform and become successful adults is to implement strict discipline. Dealing with feelings is a soft approach that will lead nowhere but to create self-indulgent, immature adults. This belief is clung to despite decades of evidence showing that discipline often leads to detrimental outcomes, while emotional regulation and the development of interpersonal skills lead to the opposite.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is that the development of social-emotional skills requires years of dedication and hard work. Unfortunately, many of us are far more attracted to the “quick fix.” We might buy into SEL if we could just purchase a kit, or call a school assembly and make some new rules in the classroom.

But experience has shown that, while it may be a good start, it is insufficient for teachers to attend a workshop or adopt some new exciting school program. This is even more the case because the demands of social-emotional skills are continuously evolving, requiring the skills that need to be taught to remain in a dynamic model.

What is needed is a paradigm shift in our thinking. We can’t continue to treat emotional problems as if they could have been prevented, and they will go away if we are just able to convince the children to be strong, ignore their feelings and prod them to produce despite what they are feeling.

The only way for there to be significant and lasting change is for the schools to adopt developmentally sequenced, learner-centered, and culturally relevant SEL approaches with demonstrated positive impacts. This will require substantial new funding.

But we must remember that SEL is a financially sound investment: According to a 2015 cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, for every dollar invested in SEL, $11 was saved from substance abuse, reduced delinquency, substance abuse, and other similar problems.

The real question is, “Can we afford not to invest?”