Twenty years of research, borne out in my own practice of teaching, art psychotherapy, clinical supervision and emerging academic leanings, have shown that children need strong foundations of social emotional competence to succeed in school.
This includes the ability to name and manage their own emotions, to recognise the emotions of others and to develop empathy.
Without these strong foundations children find it hard to navigate their way positively in the world. It can be very frightening to have powerful difficult emotions which seem un-nameable, unstoppable and propel the child into impulsive behaviours that others find controlling or anti-social. The consequences can be dire if the child is not helped early enough; leading to exclusions and mental health problems.
But all is not lost. We now know that the plasticity of the brain continues way beyond adolescence, into the young person’s twenties. Even if a child has not had a chance to build those strong foundations in their early years, schools can do much to provide an environment where the processes inherent in building these foundations get extra opportunities to occur; we are talking about SEL. It matters so very much to the children in our schools who need our support. Many of us understand that social-emotional and cognitive development are interdependent (Flook, 2005), but how many of us are aware that social emotional competence predicts academic performance? One long-term study shows that the behaviours of empathising, co-operating, helping others and sharing in year four pupils, is a better predictor of year nine academic attainment than year four academic achievement (Caprara, 2000). This may not be recent news, but it is important to remember.
I think this signals that a structured approach to SEL is needed, across schools at a universal teaching level. This might feel a long way off for some, be in place for others and, for a few, might be rather puzzling.
So what do we know about SEL?
The executive functions - abilities required for acquiring skills and information, involving focusing attention, remembering information and impulse control - can be taught, rehearsed and practised within a whole-school SEL framework. These skills will help children in school and in life. A study of more than 1,000 young children in 2003 found that the ability to sustain attention and inhibit impulses helped buffer the effects of negative family environment (NICHD, 2003).
While all children will benefit from such skill development, some children may need a specific additional intervention delivered by school staff at the targeted level, helping to fill the gaps in their early processing of emotional experiences. Others may need bespoke evidence-based therapeutic interventions that meet yet more complex levels of emotional and psychological need. 1 in 10 children need mental health support, meaning schools must take an active part in meeting their needs at early intervention level. If a child is holding difficult feelings and emotions inside this will hinder their progress. Timely and appropriate help is needed, before a crisis is reached, where it all becomes too overwhelming. Another reason for having a strong SEL framework in school is that after a therapeutic intervention is completed, a child or young person needs to return to universal-level support which requires staff to be sensitively attuned and emotionally literate, so that good work is not undone and continues to develop and enrich. Universal, targeted and personalised levels should form a seamless continuum of provision, flexible and responsive to children’s needs.
The majority of children do not need high level help and the school’s role in children’s lives is key. Children respond to clear boundaries and a calm, nurturing, stimulating and well-structured environment with opportunities to talk to a safe adult, in a familiar environment. Schools are also likely to be the first port of call for parents and carers when they have concerns. Research shows parents are most at ease seeking advice from school staff about the emotional health needs of their children.
A sense of belonging or connectedness to school is also a pre-requisite for success, according to research. Being listened to and cared for brings powerful protective effects that last and keep children safe and in school therefore less likely to engage with drugs, alcohol, aggressive acts or harmful risk-taking.
Teachers can affect positively aspects of children’s abilities to self-regulate, by modelling, coaching and giving cues. Insight from understanding psychological perspectives on behaviour will help. In addition to consistent rewards and sanctions, other models based on attachment, neuroscience and metacognition can also be helpful in informing our thinking. Central to this will be developing a language around feelings and emotions. The more integrated provision at universal level, the more successful whole-school emotional well-being will be.
What are UK schools doing and does it work?
Evidence has accumulated that the SEAL programme failed to impact consistently on student outcomes (Humphrey, 2009). There are currently no centrally driven SEL school improvement programmes in the UK and the gap is to be filled by schools. The government rightly says that evidence-based interventions must be used.
Happily, critical documentation of innovative approaches now abound in the field. Young Minds is doing much good work in Tottenham schools; a range of successful therapeutic interventions delivered by qualified and experienced arts therapists, and others, are also building extensive practice–based evidence.
Some new programmes with strong evidence-bases are also contributing to the landscape. Mindfulness in schools is a growing practice and it helps teachers too. The Good Behaviour Game is undergoing a large research random control trial in the UK with the University of Manchester and Mentor UK. Another curriculum programme being evaluated by Manchester for the UK is Second Step, an SEL programme used in 70 countries and developed by the charity Committee for Children in Seattle. I'm lucky enough to be involved with all these programmes.
So there is no shortage of possibilities for those who want to develop the social and emotional competencies of all pupils in school, whether at universal, targeted or personalised level and we can do this in the secure knowledge that such provision will impact positively on academic attainment.
- Flook, I., Repetti, R. L. & Ullman, J. B. (2005) Classroom social experiences as predictors of academic performance. Developmental Psychology, 41(2), 319-327
- Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C., Bandura, A & Zimbardo, P. G. (2000) Pro-social foundations of children’s academic achievement. Psychological Science, 11(4), 302-306
- Humphrey, N. (2009) SEAL: insufficient evidence? School Leadership Today, 1, 3-4
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2003) Do children’s attention processes mediate the link between family predictors and school readiness? Developmental Psychology, 39, 581-593.
- Minded provides a wealth of information for teachers and others, taking away the stigma around children and young people’s mental health
- DfE advice for school staff Mental health and behaviour in schools: June 2014
- Using the evidence to inform your approach is a practical guide for head teachers published in 2008.