Answering the Call for Social and Emotional Education in Schools

Imagine you are a teacher looking out at a classroom of students. They sit at their desks vacantly looking back at you, perhaps whispering to each other, or maybe laying their heads down. Now imagine thought bubbles rising from their heads that summarize their emotions. Among them you read, “I’m angry at my brother for touching my stuff” and “I’ll go crazy if I have to sit still another minute” and “I’m worried about my mother returning home from prison” and “I’m excited because that boy I like told my bff that he likes me too!” Got all that? Ok, now teach them grammar or math or history.

There is a huge gap between a teacher’s job description and the role s/he plays in a student’s life. In that gap sits the daunting task of managing student behaviors and dealing with their emotions. Students arrive at our schools each day feeling anxious, irritated, playful, preoccupied, tranquil, disheartened and a host of other emotions, and under these conditions they must also learn. Given that emotions are so closely tied with the learning process, it stands to reason that they fall under the blanket of our responsibility.

Educators are charged with the task of teaching students in the midst of all this emotional stimulation. It’s like trying to teach at a rock concert. How does one help students manage their emotions so that they may learn? Maybe we could tell the children to think positive thoughts, just concentrate or imagine they are somewhere pleasant. Ask any teacher, it’s been tried. We all know that children have less emotional control than adults, but we tell them to try things even we struggle to do. Perhaps we should make ourselves appear so jazzed to be at school that the students can’t help but pick up the beat! No doubt you get my sarcasm here, but the truth is that teachers are already working themselves silly to keep their students engaged. Teachers who strive to radiate positive emotion in the hope that it will be contagious often finish the day emotionally exhausted.

Social and emotional learning is more than just turning the volume down on negative emotions; it’s about using emotions –positive and negative – to facilitate learning.  When brainstorming, persuading, editing, reading, collaborating or observing, for example, research shows that students who feel a specific way perform at a higher level. This information is only helpful if students can identify what they are feeling and if they have the tools to re-direct those feelings. If students are to achieve the ideal emotional state for learning, they are going to need some guidance. That’s where we – the entire community of parents, teachers, administrators, aides and therapists – come in. We can start by getting comfortable with our own emotions, building an emotional vocabulary and learning how to check in with our students.

Led by psychologist Marc Brackett, Ph.D., and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, The Kingsbury Center has begun a new journey toward a more comprehensive education that fuses social and emotional development with the core of our teaching. Throughout our training in this program – called RULER – we will share with you our challenges, our successes, and yes, our feelings. As we move through this process, we want to hear about your experiences as parents, educators or students. Send your stories to, and join us in our transformation as we begin a new era in education.

3 thoughts on “Answering the Call for Social and Emotional Education in Schools

  1. Kelly says:

    When I was in high school, I had a teacher that started each day with a word for the day (i.e., “work” or “ambitious” or “hideous” or “green”); and each student had to respond to his word for the day with another word that described what his word for the day means to them; and we went around the room until everyone had voiced a word out loud – this usually didn’t take long and I always noticed how we, students, went from feeling (ugh – it’s Monday to feeling more like inspired to either participate, write, read, or learn more about a classmate). At the end of the class period, the teacher would read our words aloud one last time in a rhyme leaving us laughing and reminding us of WHO WE ARE. I remember liking this teacher a lot because I felt he wanted to know his students on a deeper level.

    Great Post!


    • Elliott L. Conklin, Psy.D. says:

      Thank you for that story, Kelly! You touched on something really important for social and emotional learning, which is the relationship that teachers have with their students. It is a relationship that needs active attention and nurture, and – as you mentioned – it doesn’t take long.


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