From Morning Advisory to Lady Gaga, Everyone is Talking about Emotional Intelligence

As the first full year of our CPR advisory program comes to a close, the faculty, students, and I are reflecting on what worked well and how we can improve the program for the future. Reflecting on our actions and setting the next round of goals are crucial steps to being progressively better every year. This is why we make students reflect on their learning in writing. It is not an easy process, however, and so it was reinvigorating this week to see the links between emotional intelligence and academic achievement receive coverage in the news.

When the Harvard Business Review published their article this week on “Teaching Teenagers to Develop Their Emotional Intelligence,” they joined a long list of entities interested in how students learn to use emotions to their advantage. This is a skill set many capture in the all-encompassing term Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), but it goes by other names, such as emotional intelligence, non-cognitive skills, or character education. At Sewickley Academy, we refer to SEL by the named programs that students and faculty know, such as Responsive Classroom, Developmental Designs, and CPR, which is the Middle School advisory program.

Far from just “touchy-feely” sensitivity, SEL is a line of academic inquiry into how students learn. Most importantly, it addresses how a student’s mindset is one of the chief factors in his or her capacity to learn difficult material and later to succeed in the job market and in life. These mindsets determine why some students work so hard, why some students persevere with a difficult challenge, and how much students are motivated by curiosity and intrinsic satisfaction.

While we used to think that these mindsets were either fixed at birth or simply nurtured when very young, over 20 years of research tells us that these mindsets change throughout a person’s development stages. In particular, students in the middle school years seem to go through a profound and sometimes life-altering change to their academic and personal mindsets.

To understand SEL and personal mindsets from an economic perspective, the Center for Cost-Benefit Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University conducted a meta-analysis of the six most widely used SEL programs in schools, including Responsive Classroom. The entire report is available from the Center and I recommend reading the full financial case for SEL, but this summary from the report is revealing:

“The most important empirical finding is that each of the six interventions for improving SEL shows measurable benefits that exceed its costs, often by considerable amounts. There is a positive return on investments for all of these educational reforms on social and emotional learning. And the aggregate result also shows considerable benefits relative to costs, with an average benefit-cost ratio of about 11 to 1 among the six interventions.”

The theory and research on SEL is compelling to educators and parents, but students listen with a keen ear for what their peers are doing, not what the research says. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence understands this and so they have partnered with Lady Gaga to promote a high school survey about how important SEL is to learning and succeeding in life. We watched Lady Gaga’s message to students in morning announcements this week, and she explains in adolescent terms why she thinks learning with emotional intelligence is a life-changer. The director of the Yale Center delivers the same messages but gears it to both adults and adolescents in this video statement:

In an oft-cited Education Week article, “Social Emotional Learning Pays Off,” Timothy Shriver and John Bridgeland summarize much of the current case for SEL. The full article is worth reading, but this summary note stands out:

“At long last, the stubborn myth that the head and the heart are separate organs may be about to die in the place where that myth has had its most negative consequences: schools. Neither science nor common sense supports the idea that learning is a mechanical process of taking information and bolting it onto a brain, but that’s exactly the mentality that has led generations of reformers to overlook the art and science of promoting the social and emotional development of children. Somehow, we came to think of emotion and relationship as tangential to knowledge acquisition. Somehow, we thought we could learn, become productive, and be successful without engaging our social and emotional lives.”

Shriver’s work comes from the leading research authority on SEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which is about to release a middle and high school edition of the CASEL Guide for Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs. The new guide will include Developmental Designs and the CPR advisory program as one of the featured SEL programs.