Should Socio-Emotional Learning Be Taught In Schools? Part 1

This week, we’ve hosted Daniel Goleman here to hash out our disagreements over emotional intelligence in children. Dan has been a good sport, and we respect his willingness to engage in this dialogue. We've extended an invitation to Dan to return, if he'd like to respond to more of our questions; if he does, we will make sure to let you know.

Over the course of the week, Dan seems to have agreed that at the time his book Emotional Intelligence was originally published, in 1995, he was covering the burgeoning science of emotions – but the construct of Emotional Intelligence itself, as a master unifier, had yet to be proven. So the real question is whether the data in the last 14 years has now proven the validity of Emotional Intelligence. And over the course of the week, our debate over that data boiled down to two competing factoids, at least as it relates to children:

  • On one hand, scores of Emotional Intelligence in students have a very weak, to nonexistent, correlation with their academic success – so being more “emotionally intelligent” doesn’t seem to help in school or college.

  • On the other hand, according to a forthcoming, long-promised meta-analysis, Socio-Emotional Learning Programs (which aim to teach kids to label and control their emotions) lead to 11% improvement in achievement test scores.

So, how do we resolve these contrasting factoids?

Well, let’s start with how Socio-Emotional Learning Programs and Emotional Intelligence are different.

If Goleman and others merely claimed that teaching “emotional control” made kids feel better about their classmates and their school, which led them, in turn, to enjoy school more and learn more – we could respect those claims.

The problem is with conflating “emotional control” (which is quite specific) with the far vaguer, far broader construct of “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is understood to be far more than merely controlling your impulses. It’s even more so about reading the emotions of other people, understanding what they desire and what scares them, and using that understanding.

Kids – and grownups – can employ that understanding for either good or evil. This is why studies of prison felons show them to have quite high scores on tests of emotional intelligence – they’re good at manipulating people.  To a far lesser extent, but on the same principle, there is a large body of research on schoolchildren which shows that many kids who can read emotions and fears in others are more aggressive, not less. We cover this science in our chapter, “Plays Well With Others.” Socially-savvy children use both pro-social tactics and anti-social tactics to improve their status and become dominant among their peers.

Children, unlike adults, reward aggressive peers with awe, respect, and influence. If we really could teach schoolchildren “emotional intelligence,” you’d be teaching them something different than emotional control – and the science suggests it would lead to more bouts for dominance, not less.

Similarly, if Goleman merely claimed that teaching “emotional control” has the side effect of improving kids’ Executive Function, that’d be an improvement. However, we’d suggest there’s far more direct, targeted interventions to improve Executive Function than Socio-Emotional Learning classes. In our chapter, “Can Self-Control Be Taught,” we write about the Tools of the Mind curriculum, which directly targets EF, with dramatic results.

It’s sort of like if blood pressure medication had the side effect of clearing up your acne – that’s nice, but there’s more targeted treatments for acne. Typical Socio-Emotional Learning programs (when properly implemented) require a class period three times a week, for most of the school year. Meanwhile, when teachers are being laid-off, and kids are smashed into classrooms with out-of-date textbooks – is this where we want our money and resources to go?

The average middle schooler in America already gets an average of 299 peer interactions every single weekday. That’s an enormous number of interactions to learn from. Most children are not lacking for peer interactions from which to implicitly learn. And most of the kinds of lessons given in Socio-Emotional Learning classes are already routinely practiced by parents and teachers, every single day of our children’s lives. From the earliest ages, we tell kids “use your words” when they’re upset. We tell them to share and take turns. We ask them to think about how their actions make other kids feel. We make them apologize and hug to make up. Setting aside a special three-days-a-week class to go over all this again, formally, comes with agonizing tradeoffs.

Certainly, there are kids in every school, every class, who aren’t socially-savvy. They retreat from social interactions, which gets them less repetitions to learn from each and every day, and they have a hard time catching up, socially. I have great sympathy for these kids, and if Socio-Emotional Learning programs were designed to target these kids, that might be enormously useful. However, SEL programs are instead implemented schoolwide, for all kids – whether they need it or not.

Now if the data supports the claim that kids get an 11% boost in achievement scores, all that might be worth it. We’re eager to see this long-promised meta-analysis. Roger Weissberg first presented this meta-analysis to scholars at the 2005 APA convention, relying on 668 studies. But without it being published, nobody could check that claim. Later that year, when Emotional Intelligence started to come under fire, Weissberg and Goleman published a paper defending EI, again citing an unpublished meta-analysis, which they’d now rerun with more limited criteria, looking at 379 studies. It was strange that their analysis wasn’t soon published, because the claims were so powerful, so important, (if valid). For several more years, we’ve waited for this analysis to be available. The analysis is currently under review at Child Development, and we look forward to seeing it and checking it. According to Dan’s description, it looks only at studies of SEL programs, of which there are 213, so it should be targeted and exact.

We’ve described before our reasons to be skeptical. And we’ve seen a lot of hocus-pocus in meta-analyses in the social sciences, which don’t look so great under closer inspection. Good intentions don’t necessarily make good ideas. In our next post, we’ll look at one big study of Socio-Elementary Learning classes that was implemented on elementary schoolchildren, in almost 80 schools. The study’s authors claim it was a resounding success. But their own data betrays their claims.

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