Group of students standing in a large circle.It’s not surprising that improving student behavior, raising graduation rates, boosting achievement levels, and forging strong relationships between students and teachers are common goals of middle and high school principals. 

But what sometimes surprises people is that school-based social and emotional learning programs can impact every one of these areas—leading to a better school climate and meaningful changes in student outcomes.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which students gain and apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy, build strong relationships, and make good decisions. Sure, parents are central to helping their children gain these skills, but schools play a key role too. 

The language used to describe these competencies varies. They’re sometimes referred to as “grit” or “soft skills,” and teaching them may be described as “whole child” or “character education.” While the names differ, the developmental approach to teaching and learning reinforces all of them: Children learn in and through relationships and learn best when their emotional lives, their social bonds, and their cognitive curiosity are all engaged simultaneously. 

Middle and high schools can contribute to an approach that integrates academic, social, and emotional learning because young people are maturing rapidly at this stage. They tend to engage in riskier behaviors than younger students and face challenges such as increased independence and peer pressure. At the same time, they have the capacity for more advanced thinking. Research shows that by increasing students’ social and emotional competence, we can reduce problem behaviors like aggression and delinquency and improve academic engagement and performance. 

School-based programs that promote social and emotional learning sometimes center on teaching these skills directly. Others integrate strategies that promote these skills into reading, social studies, and other academic areas. Many programs also help change teaching practices to foster this kind of learning. The best of them address issues around school climate, community engagement, staff development, and alternative discipline in ways that support classroom interventions. 

Going Beyond Core Subjects

Despite tight budgets and pressure to double down on academic subjects like reading and math, a growing number of districts and schools have made investing in SEL programs a priority and are seeing tremendous benefits. They have come to understand that children have the best chance to learn when they are also taught to be caring, responsible, and inspired. Teaching core subjects and teaching the social and emotional ones is not an either/or. It is a both/and. 

Marc Engoglia, principal of Facing History New Tech High School in Cleveland, OH, who participated in the Special Section Roundtable for this issue of Principal Leadership, says his school has a great culture for learning, thanks, in part, to its adoption of a strong social and emotional learning program, “Facing History and Ourselves.” It encourages a rigorous look at history and challenges students to consider critical questions about ethics and civic engagement. 

Engoglia reports a wide-ranging impact of this program-a strong sense of community has emerged, and the school has become a place where young people and their teachers support one another whether they’re working on academic goals or working through problems in their lives. When a student’s brother was shot and killed, students and teachers discussed the tragedy in an open and reflective way that was meaningful and helpful to the student body at large and to the student whose family life had just been devastated by tragedy. And when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in another part of Cleveland last year, district officials turned to the team at Facing History New Tech for help talking to students in other schools about the tragedy.

Resources for Implementing SEL Programs

Choosing a program that’s right for your school can feel overwhelming because there are so many choices available. But resources from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) can help you get started. For example, the 2015 Guide to Social and Emotional Programs for Secondary Schools is an easy-to-use Consumer Reports-like review of social and emotional learning programs. 

The guide identifies nine top programs that earned a spot on the “SELect” list. These programs demonstrated a range of effects on schools, from higher achievement levels to reduced problem behaviors such as suspensions and emotional distress. The guide also addresses program design, ease of implementation, the quality of support and training, and evaluations of results. (A similar 2013 guide covered elementary schools.)

CASEL suggests that parents, teachers, school counselors, and students should be involved in the selection process. If finding the time, staff, and money to allocate to the program seems like a major hurdle, consider a recent Columbia University study: For every dollar spent, there was almost an $11 return on that investment. 

If you need more help figuring out how to allocate resources toward promoting social and emotional learning efforts in your school, check out the new CASEL financial sustainability tool, which offers strategies and practical ideas for districts from Austin, TX, to Chicago, IL.

The evidence is clear. Investing in the social and emotional well-being of our youth is both the smart thing to do and the right thing to do. Young people need to be able to do math, read, and write at high levels in the 21st century. They will only be successful if they are also given the chance to learn how to manage their emotional lives, build strong relationships, and believe in their capacity to make a difference. 

Nothing less than our kids’ future is at stake. Let’s work together to make sure it is bright. 

Tim Shriver is a co-founder and board member of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and chairman of the Special Olympics.