Social emotional skills can help students set goals for themselves and build positive relationships with peers. They can also lead to long-term societal benefits that extend far beyond the individual child.
At an elementary school in the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, the school day starts in an unusual way. Before they do anything else, students sit down at a classroom computer and select the face that best matches how they feel that morning.
If they’re feeling upbeat, they pick a green, smiling face. If they’re upset about something, there’s a red sad face. And if they feel somewhere in the middle there’s a yellow neutral face. This exercise helps these students develop self-awareness and emotional management skills. It also helps teachers recognize which students are having a tough day and where they might need help.
Ryan Coffey, a teacher and counselor at the Wisconsin school, calls this simple check-in an incredible tool that “can change the whole day.”
“It’s about being proactive—before they blow up—instead of reactive. Because [incidents in the community] are hard on them, hard on their classmates and hard on their teacher. It’s traumatic for everyone. When they get older, those negative coping skills lead to the smoking, the drinking, the drug use. If we give them positive skills now ... those are life skills they’ll use forever.”
This community has recognized, and put into practice, what research increasingly shows is clear: social emotional development is essential to long-term wellbeing and success.
In fact, building social emotional skills in students as young as kindergartners can have long-term benefits, not just for the students themselves but for society as a whole.
All of these positive long-term outcomes benefit not just the student, but broader society. For instance, when students succeed in school and grow up to become productive adults, they’re ultimately supporting the overall well-being of their neighbors and communities. If, as adolescents grow older, they avoid substance abuse and crime, they’re also preventing associated societal costs.
But what is new and exciting is that more and more schools are putting these social emotional principles and programs into practice the way the Menominee Nation is. Schools have always focused on building the academic skills and knowledge of students, and we’ve always viewed that as a long-term investment in our human capital. A large and growing body of research should make it clear that supporting students’ social, emotional, and physical health is just as strong an investment.
Mark Greenberg is the Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research, founding director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, and professor of Human Development and Family Studies and Psychology, College of Health and Human Development at the Pennsylvania State University.
Tracy Costigan is senior learning officer in the Research-Evaluation-Learning (REL) unit at RWJF.