SEL, Whole Child Education and Student Readiness: How do They Connect?

Imagine this scenario.  A smiling five-year-old is brought into a bare room with a table.  On the table is a plate with a single marshmallow.  The researcher who brought them in says she will back in 15 minutes, and gives them a choice: they can eat the one marshmallow while she’s gone or wait until she returns and have two.  This simple test turned out to be an effective measure of willpower or self-control and a strong predictor of future success.  Children who displayed early ability to defer gratification, on average, had higher SAT scores, lower body mass index and a host of other desirable outcomes.[i]

For decades, the results of the “Marshmallow Test” have been used to suggest that traits like self-control, emotion management and grit matter.  Rightly or wrongly, however, the study has also been interpreted to suggest that these are relatively immutable traits that are baked into children early.

We now have ample evidence that these skills are malleable.  Brain research confirms that these skills continue to develop well into adolescent years and even beyond.[ii]  Program evaluations show an increase in skill growth in response to explicit instruction.[iii]  Combined, these findings suggest the need for more intentional focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) as a part of schools’ commitment to educating the whole child.[iv]

The good news is that educators are responding to this challenge.  The bad news is that efforts to teach SEL can sometimes reinforce counterproductive stereotypes about students and their families.

The statement that social and emotional skills can be taught is technically correct. But the suggestion that schools should teach these skills too often ends with the selection of a curriculum that emphasizes teaching SEL content.  This expedient decision can pull educators away from having broader discussions about creating learning contexts that encourage students to demonstrate and build on the skills they have.

new marshmallow study makes this point unequivocally.  Researchers at the University of Rochester once again put young kids into a room with a marshmallow.  But this time, the children were randomly assigned to have a pre-encounter with a member of the research team.  Some had an unreliable experience: The adult promised fun art supplies but never came back.  Others had a positive experience: The adult delivered the art supplies as promised.  The impact of this seemingly insignificant encounter was amazing.[v]

In the original study, the average time young children waited before eating the marshmallow was about 6 minutes.  In this study, the average time for the group that had the reliable pre-experience was 12 minutes.  The average time for the group with the unreliable pre-experience was only 3 minutes!  Dramatic findings like these are almost unheard of in behavioral studies.

This simple test has enormous implications.  It reminds us that even at a young age, a child’s behavior is a product of what they can generally do and what they believe makes sense to do in that situation or environment.   The difference between the two groups is clearly not related to their general ability to delay gratification—it is related to their assessment of the specific behavioral cues provided by the adults around them.

A new branch of research called the science of learning reinforces the new marshmallow test findings.  This research supports a simple premise: In order for children and youth to learn specific content (academic or otherwise), we must first ensure that we have created learning environments in which they feel socially accepted, emotionally safe and generally supported. [vi]  If these conditions aren’t met, young people are far less likely to engage in the learning activities, to show and use the skills and knowledge they already know, and to take the risk of stretching themselves into new areas of learning and leadership.[vii]

Consider the differences between these two statements:

·       Educators should prioritize social and emotional learning.

·       Educators should recognize that learning is social and emotional.

The first statement suggests that educators should take on responsibility for yet another set of skills that they and their students will be held accountable for.  This means either that time has to be carved out of the school day to support explicit instruction, or that teachers have to squeeze SEL instruction into what are already demanding and prescriptive curricula.

The second statement suggests that educators need to understand the social and emotional profiles that their students bring into school and do as much as they can to anticipate their reactions to the learning demands, structures and supports being offered them in order to co-create contexts for learning that will differ school to school, class to class, and perhaps student to student.

The second statement, on its surface, seems more challenging.  But it is also more empowering.  It requires that school administrators, families, and communities acknowledge and support the powerful role that teachers can play not only as deliverers of academic content, but as shapers of the social and emotional contexts in which academic, social and emotional learning happens.

The push to formally integrate social and emotional skills development into the school day and the school curricula is playing out in at least three distinct (but overlapping) efforts.

·       Efforts to improve student behavior in order to address school discipline and school climate issues.

·       Efforts to increase student engagement in learning through more active, personalized approaches to teaching subject areas such as science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) that respond to talent pipeline gaps.

·       Efforts to prepare students for their future roles as citizens, community leaders and change makers.

All of these efforts involve deliberate work to integrate opportunities to name, use and build social and emotional skills into the learning content.  Not all of these, however, are called social and emotional learning.

Project-based learning, deeper learning, service learning, STEM, career and technical education are examples of teaching/learning approaches and curricula that require students to practice the full range of social and emotional skills in the service of mastering academic content.  These approaches focus more explicitly on skills like teamwork, problem-solving, critical-thinking, and initiative.  These curricula or approaches are frequently described by their content focus or broader academic learning approaches.[viii]

These approaches, unfortunately, may not be equally available to all students.  Teachers in gifted and talented programs and magnet schools, for example, are more likely to be trained and incorporate opportunities for students to demonstrate and develop all of these skills in their classrooms.  A growing number of schools and school networks designed to provide these types of learning environments to low-income and minority students exist, but they are not the norm.[ix]

Explicitly branded social and emotional programs (such as PBIS – Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports), in contrast, may focus on these “higher order” skills, but typically have emotion management and empathy as their starting points, moving on to include skills like “grit”.[x]  Many schools and districts have begun to implement curricula by starting with an explicit focus on improving student behavior.  They have made a strategic decision to roll out these initiatives first in their weakest schools.

This targeted approach is justifiable.  It can be an important first step towards reversing the disturbing trends in school discipline and suspension rates and in reducing disparities associated with race, ethnicity, income and gender.  This first step becomes dangerous and divisive when it is the only step taken, or, more specifically, the only step taken for a subset of schools serving students and families whose lived experiences give them reasons not to trust schools and educators and give educators reasons not to have high expectations for students. [xi]

It is absolutely unacceptable in the 21st century to have the social, emotional and academic competency expectations for black, brown and poor students be defined as having behavior good enough to allow them to stay in their seats so that they can complete needed credits.  Readiness for college, work and life requires proficiency if not mastery of the social, emotional and academic competencies that have become the vocabulary of the workforce.

Learning is social and emotional. 

Honoring this premise means that schools as well as any other systems in which students spend their time have to ensure that all students have access to environments that they find safe, supportive, stimulating and empowering.  This means creating safe, supportive, stimulating and empowering opportunities for the adults who work with students to reflect on their own skills, assess the adequacy and have the time and resources needed to create appropriate learning contexts– from core classes to communal spaces.  It also means providing opportunities for teachers, students and families to voice and influence systemic changes in the conditions beyond their control that are affecting the social and emotional health of their school communities.[xii]

When faced with the opportunity to truly improve young people’s readiness for college, work and life, how can we not respond with all we have?





[ii] The Adolescent Brain, Executive Summary, by Jim Casey Opportunities Initiative, 2011. Retrieved July 18, 2017 from

Siegel, Dan.  Brainstorm:  The Teenage Brain from the Inside Out (2014).  Penguin Group.

[iii] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405–432.

[iv] Social, Emotional and Academic Development Fast Facts. (n.d.). The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from

[v] Casey, B. J.; Somerville, Leah H.; Gotlib, Ian H.; Ayduk, Ozlem; Franklin, Nicholas T.; Askren, Mary K.; Jonides, John; Berman, Mark G.; Wilson, Nicole L.; Teslovich, Theresa; Glover, Gary; Zayas, Vivian; Mischel, WalterShoda, Yuichi (August 29, 2011). “From the Cover: Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108 (36): 14998–15003.

Shorter summary: The Marshmallow Study Revisited. (2012). University of Rochester. Retrieved July 17, 2017 from

[vi] Berg, Juliette, et al.  Science of Learning and Development (2016).  (Pre-pub copy) The Opportunity Institute, The Learning Policy Institute, Education Counsel.

[vii] Durlak, J.A. et al.  (2011)  “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning:  A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.”  Child Development, 82(1) pp.405-432.

Smith, Charles et al. (2016) Preparing Youth to Thrive:  Methodology and Findings from the Social and Emotional Learning Challenge.  The Forum for Youth Investment, Washington D.C.

[viii] Emdin, Christopher. “5 New Approaches to Teaching and Learning: The Next Frontier.” The Huffington Post. January 31, 2014.

Retrieved July 17, 2017 from

[ix] Examples include Big Picture Learning network schools (, EL Education schools (, XQ Super Schools (, and KIPP Public Charter schools (

[x] Jones, S. et al.  Navigating SEL from the Inside Out. (March 2017). Published on line.  Harvard School of Education with funding from the Wallace Foundation. Retrieved July 17, 2017 from


[xi] Harold, Benjamin. “Is ‘Grit’ Racist?” Education Week. January 24, 2015.

[xii] Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning can Empower Children and Transform Schools. A report for CASEL. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises.