Social and Emotional Learning: For Each Dollar Spent, Eleven Dollars Saved

social skills 1Of late, more and more evidence has been coming to light demonstrating the importance of youth spending time learning how to get along with others. For example, this month, researchers from Penn State and Duke University published a study that looked at what happened to kindergarten students who were rated by their teachers as having strong social competence skills 13 to 19 years later. When compared to those who had below average social competence skills, they were more likely to graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; and they were less likely to live in public housing, receive public assistance, be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults.

Dr. Mark T. Greenberg

Dr. Mark T. Greenberg

In an interview reported by the New York Times, Mark T. Greenberg, a professor of Human Development and Psychology at Penn State University and a co-author of the study stated:

“These early abilities, especially the ability to get along with others, are the abilities that make other kids like you, and make teachers like kids. And when kids feel liked, they’re more likely to settle down and pay attention, and keep out of the principal’s office, and reap the benefits of being in a classroom. And this builds over time; it’s like a cascade. They become more bonded with peers and healthy adults and they become more bonded to school as an institution, and all those skills lead them, independent of their I.Q., to be less at risk for problems.”

Now, some might argue that these abilities are innate, and thus really can’t be learned. Columbia UBut this year, researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University did some number crunching to estimate the economic value of six different social and emotional learning programs. They looked at the programs’ impact on things like future wages and social costs (pdf). Here’s the summary of their findings:

“The most important empirical finding is that each of the six interventions for improving SEL [social and emotional learning] shows measurable benefits that exceed its costs, often by considerable amounts. There is a positive return on investments for all of these educational reforms on social and emotional learning. And the aggregate result also shows considerable benefits relative to costs, with an average benefit-cost ratio of about 11 to 1 among the six interventions. This means that, on average, for every dollar invested equally across the six SEL interventions, there is a return of eleven dollars, a substantial economic return.”

social skills 2Despite these findings, only a small minority of schools provide a fully developed curriculum for teaching SEL. In contrast, many schools that I have worked for have made statements to the public that they take teaching SEL seriously, but their programs amount to little more than a counselor coming into classes a few times a year to give a brief presentation on the value of everyone getting along in a respectful manner. As someone who has implemented SEL programs in schools and sat on a research committee that evaluated the effectiveness of such programs, it is my impression that without a program that at least weekly provides instruction in SEL, lasting effects tend to be minuscule at best.

Advocating for A SEL Program In Your Community Schools

GOLDEN, CO - OCTOBER 02: Community members attend a JEFFCO Public Schools Board of Education meeting as part of a protest on October 2, 2014 in Golden, Colorado. (Photo by Jason Bahr/Getty Images for Civic Action)

Thus, I highly recommend that interested community members such as parent groups and educators organize presentations to their school boards that assertively advocate that a full scale SEL program becomes standard practice throughout the grades in each of their community schools.

What Can You Do At Home To Promote SEL

For those who are less given to community organizing, there is still a great deal that can be done within your own homes. If you have youngsters living with you, or if you are a grandparent, uncle, or aunt that regularly meets with the youngsters in the family, here are some suggestions that do not cost any money:

At the very top of any of my blog posts, you will see a heading that says, FREE BOOK: DEALING WITH INSULTS, TEASING AND CRITICISM.  Cover newBy clicking on this heading, you can download for free a PDF version of a book that utilizes America’s favorite comics to teach a number of important SEL skills. Once you download it, I recommend reading a chapter of the book once a week with your youngsters, and then discussing with them how the ideas might be used in something currently going on in their lives.

Once you finished all of the chapters of the book, I recommend playing a game designed to further enhance the learning of the skills taught in the book. The details of this game are provided in my post titled Teaching Children How to Deal with Criticism, and by clicking HERE you can go directly to that post.

Briefly, the game is played in the following manner: One of the skills that the free book teaches people is to be able to recognize four levels of maturity for responding to criticism, with level one being the most immature, and each higher level viewed as being a little more mature.  Your job, when playing the game, is to make up a brief story in which someone criticizes someone else. In your story, you explain how the criticized person responds to the criticism.  Then the child guesses what level the response was at.  Lucy and LinusSo, for example, I could make up a simple story in which Lucy says to her brother, Linus, “You’re stupid!” Linus responds by saying “Oh yeah, well at least I’m not as stupid as you!”  You would then ask your youngster, “What level is Linus’s response?”

After you discuss the youngster’s answer, you would then role-play the situation so that you provide the criticism and the child acts out a more mature response.  If the child fails to do this correctly, reverse the roles by having the child criticize you and you provide a more mature response.  Then let the child try to imitate your response.

By playing this game, youth become very familiar with how to respond to criticism in a mature manner, and learn to construe name calling, insults, and violent responses as signs of immaturity. Moreover, you will find that the game leads to your youngster sharing with you real life experiences with criticism, and together, you can both problem solve how to constructively handle them.

social skills 3There are, of course, far more social and emotional skills for youth to learn besides how to respond maturely to criticism. Identifying different levels of maturity when it comes to providing criticism (see HERE) and learning how to deal with anger arousing situations (see HERE) are just a couple of important other examples.

These skills are not at all adequately learned by reading a single book. We must bring these issues before the youth’s mind at regular intervals over the course of several months, and then do so again and again for each year the youth is growing from childhood, to teenage years, and finally into adulthood. By reading with your youngsters, each of my blog posts, beginning from the first one, then moving on to the next one, and the next at a reasonable pace, perhaps once per week, this can be done in a fun manner for free. Directions for using this blog in this manner as a free SEL curriculum, see the paragraph below this post.

hero coverFinally, a wonderful way to have youth learn how to apply the skills into real life situations is by presenting a dramatic narrative that has characters the youth can easily identify with, struggling with tough issues. A Hero Grows in Brooklyn is one such narrative that is suitable for a general audience, and I have made it free for downloading on any computer or ebook reader (see HERE).

Okay then, there you have it, several suggestions for helping our youth learn SEL skills. Your efforts can play an important role in helping communities prevent violence, save an enormous amount of money, and increase the likelihood of a number of other highly valuable outcomes.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Abusive Criticism In Big Time Sports

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

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