Why Thinking About (and Measuring) the Whole Child Is Important

Posted by Jeff WatsonO

Teachers are used to evaluating students’ competencies in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but attending to students’ social and emotional intelligence is just as important.


In 1995, psychologist and New York Times contributor Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence, a book that quickly became a bestseller in numerous countries around the world and currently has a print circulation north of 5 million copies. At the time of the book’s publication, the idea of “social and emotional learning” (SEL) was just starting to emerge in specialized programs across the United States, most of which were narrowly targeting issues like dropout rates, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and school violence.


Nearly two decades later, the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning(CASEL) is making a substantial push to bring SEL to as many American children and teens as possible. In 2012, CASEL launched an SEL pilot program with eight public school districts around the country, and last year it introduced ten new partnerships with major districts in cities like Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, and Oakland (as well as a host of partnerships with smaller districts). As a result, according to The Atlantic, “More than 1 million U.S. school children are enrolled in schools that have implemented or are in the process of implementing a social-emotional learning strategy.”


A Robust Return On Investment


Preliminary research into the benefits and effectiveness of SEL — or “educating the whole child,” as it’s commonly referenced — has been consistently encouraging. A 2011 meta-analysis published in Child Development found that SEL programs produce an 11-percentile gain (on average) in participating students’ academic performance. The programs also “increased prosocial behaviors and reduced conduct and internalizing problems,” suggesting that SEL does, in fact, have the potential to improve participants not only as students but as (whole) people.


These demonstrably positive results led researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College to estimate that, “On average, for every dollar invested [in] SEL interventions, there is a return of eleven dollars.” Even more impressively, “A full accounting for benefits…would provide an even larger return.”


CASEL’s Five Pillars of SEL


On a fundamental level, SEL works by providing students with opportunities to acquire the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to move toward something like Goleman’s “emotional intelligence.” According to CASEL, SEL helps children “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”


These wide-ranging outcomes are achieved by attending to five areas of personal and interpersonal development: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.


  1. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize our own emotions, thoughts, and values accurately, and understand how they influence our behavior. It also involves evaluating our strengths and limitations, crafting a well-grounded sense of self-confidence, and fostering a “growth mindset.”
  2. Self-management is the ability to regulate our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors regardless of contextual stimuli. A good self-manager can effectively manage stress, control their impulses, and motivate themselves to set and work toward personal and academic goals.
  3. Social awareness is the ability to empathize with others and appreciate the perspectives of people from diverse backgrounds of every sort. It also involves recognizing and respecting established ethical and behavioral norms.
  4. Relationship skills enable students to build and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals in varied contexts. Doing so requires the ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, negotiating conflict constructively, and seek (and offer) help when appropriate.
  5. Responsible decision-making is the practice of considering things like ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms when making choices about personal behavior and social interactions. This requires the realistic evaluation of consequences and thoughtful consideration of our wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of others.


Learning to Teach the Whole Child


Any teacher will tell you that helping students develop skills in these five areas have been part of the job from the beginning — and they’re right. The popularization of SEL is exciting not because it constitutes an entirely new school of thought, but because it indicates an administrative willingness to educate the whole child.


This kind of strong institutional commitment is absolutely essential, especially in our assessment-obsessed age. “Sometimes the most important things to assess are also the most difficult things to assess,” says author Rita A. Jensen, the expert behind Hoonuit’s “Child Development: Ages and Stages” seminar. “People can’t just stand up and show me that they’re self-aware in the context of a five-minute test. Students can demonstrate how many pushups they can do or how many state capitals they know, but they can’t ‘show-off’ their self-awareness.”


In short, effective SEL is as important as it is time-consuming. It’s a comprehensive process — not a one-off endeavor — and this process begins with adequate teacher training. That’s why we’ve dedicated Hoonuit’slatest professional development series to SEL. Each module in the series — several of which are crafted by Jensen herself — focuses on a different aspect of SEL, helping teachers gain a deep, nuanced understanding of what it takes to teach, assess, and cater to “the whole child.”

Get in touch

Get in touch