How a changing society changes SEL

Two very different trends are having a significant impact on children’s social and emotional learning. Eric Schaps discusses age segregation and national testing

TWO SOCIETAL TRENDS with major consequences for children’s development ought to be considered in the design and implementation of social and emotional learning (SEL) programmes. One trend poses a formidable challenge to SEL itself. The other poses a formidable challenge to effective, sustained implementation of school-based SEL programmes.

The first trend is nothing new; it began some 200 years ago but has accelerated in the past 50 years. It is the stark pattern of age segregation that has developed throughout society, and that affects children in particularly profound ways.

The second trend is more recent, emerging only during the past two decades. It is the dramatic narrowing of the mission of state education as a result of national testing and league tables. These accountability systems have created a single overriding focus for primary schools: pupils’ English, maths and science proficiency as measured by achievement tests, and especially the scores of “failing” or “struggling” pupils. At secondary level, GCSE and A-level achievement dominates. Whether a school is now deemed effective depends mostly, if not solely, on league tables and year-on-year exam result comparisons.

If these two trends are ignored, SEL policies and programmes are likely to be ineffective. Here I discuss each trend, and then offer suggestions for how SEL educators can cope with them.

The impact of age segregation on children’s lives

Throughout history, children have learned interpersonal and intrapersonal skills primarily by being in close proximity to adults – watching and working with adults throughout the day. This fundamental form and process of socialisation has been steadily eroded as:

  • Prior to the Industrial Revolution most people lived in small villages. People often worked together as a family unit, mainly in agriculture but also as skilled craftsmen. The past two centuries have eroded this trend with the growth of towns and cities, the decline of agriculture, and the disappearance of the family working unit.
  • In the 20th century a majority of mothers with young children disappeared from their progeny’s daytime lives and entered the out-of-home workforce on a part- or full-time basis. In the UK 67% of working-age women with dependent children were in employment in 2008.
  • Also in the 20th century, rapidly increasing mobility caused extended families to become geographically dispersed, reducing children’s contact with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
  • In the past 50 years, single-parent families have proliferated as divorce and out-of-wedlock births became commonplace. About 45% of children were born outside marriage in the UK in 2008.
  • In the past several decades, as neighbourhoods have become more impersonal and are perceived as less safe, children are increasingly restricted from playing freely outdoors and from getting to know their adult neighbours.

The cumulative result is that, relative to previous generations, contemporary children lack stable, complex networks of relationships with caring adults, and they lack opportunities to observe those adults fulfilling their various roles. The socialising influences of relationships with adults and direct involvement in adult life have been replaced by:

  • Extended formal schooling, which now holds children for many more years and more hours per day than in the past.
  • The pervasive and multifaceted mass media, with its explicit and implicit messages about what is good and important.
  • Peer culture, as young people experience it through direct contact, and as they experience it indirectly via the portrayal of peer and popular culture in the media.

Even within schools children are increasingly segregated by age, with multi-age classrooms virtually disappearing as schools have grown in size. When children were enrolled in much smaller schools they worked with, or at least alongside, older and younger children, often functioning as mentors for younger pupils, and benefiting from the maturity and advanced skills of older pupils. They also had ongoing relationships with their teachers, whereas today they typically move from one teacher to another every year, and often rotate among teachers during the school day.

Because of these changes, SEL educators cannot assume effective support from nuclear and extended families, or even the social milieu of the school itself. And so they must help their schools attend to children’s most basic socialization needs as well as their learning of socio-emotional dispositions and skills.

The narrowing mission of state schooling

In the UK the introduction of national testing for 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds in the 1990s, and the increasing importance of league tables, has dramatically shifted schools’ autonomy. Having a centralised accountability system imposes relentless pressures with cascading effects. These systems marginalise the teaching of non-tested subjects and increase the time required for exam preparation. They channel funds, staff time, teaching time, and professional development activity towards teaching the specific content and skills that are tested. They make “educating the whole child” – that is, attending to children’s social, emotional, ethical, aesthetic, and physical development as well as their academic development – a secondary if not tertiary consideration. Local initiatives notwithstanding, making SEL a genuine priority, and maintaining that priority over time, is now a continuous uphill climb.

Three suggestions for SEL policy and practice

SEL educators must address both challenges – of age segregation and of narrowly focused accountability systems. They cannot take for granted that pupils are being effectively socialised through traditional means, nor can they assume that policy makers and school leaders will support their efforts when pressures intensify to boost exam results. Below are three suggestions for dealing with these challenges.

1. Actively cultivate adult-child and cross-age relationships

Adult–child, cross-age, and peer relationships meet pupils’ basic psychological need for “belonging”, and they constitute the primary medium through which SEL can be practised and applied. Relationships can be deliberately cultivated in various ways:

  • Unity-building activities in the classroom;
  • Class meetings for purposes of collaborative planning, decision making, problem solving, reflection;
  • Co-operative learning pedagogies;
  • Cross-age tutoring, cross-age buddies, cross-age service learning;
  • Teachers “looping”: staying with the same group of pupils for two or more years;
  • Secondary school advisories, including multi-year advisories;
  • Home visits by teachers;
  • Parent involvement in classroom and school life;
  • Ongoing community service that creates sustained relationships with those being served (eg, senior citizens).

Many empirical studies have shown that supportive in-school relationships are not only central to social and emotional learning, they are key to pupils’ academic engagement and achievement, and to their healthy overall development and avoidance of problem behaviours. Why such a range of highly desirable effects? One explanation is that relationship building promotes “school bonding” – pupils becoming committed and motivated to live up to their school’s ideals and goals.

2. Teach/practise interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies early

Pupils often lack the self-awareness and selfcontrol skills, or the communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution skills, necessary to succeed in school. Rather than leave pupils to learn those skills through trial and error, with the attendant risk of their being labelled as “difficult,” it makes sense to proactively and systematically teach them. One side benefit of teaching SEL skills early is that it makes relationshipbuilding easier, thereby creating a virtuous circle of a sort.

3. Integrate SEL into academic curricula, particularly English and maths

Holistic educators may argue that SEL is a worthy educational goal in itself. They will point to the long-term benefits for both pupils and society, and will argue against viewing SEL as merely a means of achieving better exam results. But in the current policy environment, the reality is that SEL will be taken more seriously and implemented more conscientiously if fully integrated into the academic curriculum, especially into the tested subjects of English and maths. In effect, integrating SEL with academic teaching is a way to protect it against the current accountability pressures.

In addition, this integration can produce a powerful form of synergy: teaching is likely to be more effective if it incorporates SEL skills that promote harmonious, productive collaborations among pupils, teaching skills such as how to take turns, ask clarifying questions, disagree respectfully, and build on another’s ideas. Conversely, these SEL skills and the values that underlie them (eg, respect, tactfulness) are likely to be learned more fully if pupils use them routinely in classroom interaction.

About the author

Eric Schaps is the founder and President of the Developmental Studies Center in California.

Further reading

Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader’s Guide to SEL Programs (2003). Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Downloadable at

Schaps E (2005), The Role of Supportive School Environments in Promoting Academic Success. Getting Results, Developing Safe and Healthy Kids, Update 5: Student Health, Supportive Schools, and Academic Success. California Department of Education, 39–56.

Schaps E (2007), Community in School: The Heart of the Matter. In Honston P, Blankstein A, & Cole R (eds), Spirituality in Educational Leadership. Thousand Oaks CA: Cormin Press, 73–87.

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February 2010