Social–Emotional Learning and Relevancy

Read Time: 6 minutes
Vincent Costanza
Former Chief Academic Officer , Teaching Strategies
December 20, 2018

I recently came across an EdWeek blog post with the headline “Too Much Irrelevant Schoolwork Could Jeopardize Student Engagement, Study Finds.” If you read this headline in the same way I did, your obvious reaction is “no kidding.” The idea that something being learned or taught ought to be relevant to the student or teacher is certainly not a new concept. In this instance, the post referred to a report from the Education Trust, which concluded that “students rarely receive relevant assignments that allow room for student choice, potentially jeopardizing their engagement.”

While there is a great deal written in the education community about the importance of social–emotional development, the report mentioned above made me think of the important overlap between social–emotional development and another essential area of development for young children: their approach to learning. These two areas overlap in important ways that make learning more relevant and engaging to children.

First, what exactly is social and emotional learning?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines it thusly:

Considering the effect that relationships have on children’s social–emotional development and the effect that social–emotional development has on all other areas of learning, the relationships forged in an early learning environment create an important context for overall learning and engagement. These relationships form the center of social and emotional learning competencies, which in turn are closely related to the cognitive capabilities that shape children’s approaches to learning. For instance, when children are able to take on the perspective of others (a social–emotional learning competency), they are in a better position to consider diverse and divergent viewpoints for the purpose of effective problem-solving (a cognitive skill and learning practice).

Recently, much attention has also been given to children’s approaches to learning, which includes their level of engagement, their planning and problem-solving skills, and their initiative and creativity (Hyson, 2016).

As noted above, engagement is an indispensable component of children’s approaches to learning. Without question, children who are deeply engaged in classroom activities are more apt to persist when making mistakes, to play or tinker with ideas to create new solutions to problems, and to assist peers in solving problems. In turn, this engagement creates an emotional commitment to the work they are completing and to the people they are completing it with. Consistent engagement depends on children’s cognitive ability to implement coherent problem-solving strategies and also requires children to support one another and develop peer relationships.

The overlap between social–emotional learning and children’s approaches to learning is important not only in the context of schooling, but later in life as well.

According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report, which predicts how technology will transform the workplace, the social–emotional and learning skills listed below are exactly the ones that our children need now and in the future.

  • Creativity
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgment and decision-making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation skills
  • Cognitive flexibility (creativity, logical reasoning, and problem sensitivity)

Perhaps we shouldn’t wait until children are in high school to support these concepts in an intentional way. Of course, one clear strategy is to make learning relevant, engaging, and rigorous. Yes, rigorous!

Here are a few of the reasons to support rigorous, relevant, and engaging early learning experiences.

For one, children ought to have the same freedom to tinker, test, and experiment with ideas that any thoughtful adult experiences when the solution to a problem is novel and derived only by playing with a multitude of ideas. What does academic rigor look like to a kindergarten student, for instance? What rigor should look like to an educator observing a kindergarten class is a classroom filled with children deeply engaged in meaningful activities and projects. Some children will be making mistakes, some children will be assisting peers, and all children will have the opportunity to play with ideas. In short, play is deep engagement.

So, if you’re interested in making learning relevant and engaging, here’s the formula:

Focus on social–emotional competencies and the overlap with cognitive competencies that children use in their approaches to learning. Then support children as they dive into activities and make mistakes. Take a moment to play with that idea for a little while.

Click here for free tips, guidance and strategies for encouraging emotional-social development.

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