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Helping Adults in 3 Key Areas Will Build Kids’ Social-Emotional Skills

father with son on shoulders

Helping the Adults is Helping the Children

To survive the psychological challenges brought on by the pandemic, children need strong social and emotional skills. But while it might seem counterintuitive, for schools looking to invest in their students’ social-emotional learning, the best place to begin is not with the students, but with the adults.

Teachers, administrators, and support staff in the schools must have a clear understanding and firm grip on their social-emotional abilities, and attend to their own emotional well-being before they can truly help their students.

A recently published extensive report from the RAND Corporation and The Wallace Foundation found that the professional development plans for implementing new social-emotional learning (SEL) programs should include explicit efforts to build adults’ SEL skills.

The Importance of SEL for Adults

Some of the other studies and reports that corroborate the RAND Corporation findings:

A study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that teachers who taught SEL but failed to cultivate their practice worsened their student’s SEL skills. In contrast, teachers who developed their SEL skills in addition to improving their well-being also improved the social, emotional, and academics of their students.

Research from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development demonstrates that children learn SEL skills more effectively when educators can successfully model these skills.

Stephanie Jones at the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests that, when teachers engage in SEL, it influences the quality of student-teacher relationships, classroom management, and overall school climate.

The 3 Areas to Focus On


Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl in Social and Emotional Learning and Teachers claims, “Teachers don’t just need to know how to explicitly teach social and emotional skills; they also need the knowledge, dispositions, and skills for creating a safe, caring, supportive, and responsive school and classroom community.”

If schools hope to fully implement SEL, it’s vital to support staff in cultivating their social and emotional competence while at the same time developing the ability to support SEL in their peers and students.

By engaging in their social and emotional learning, teachers enhance their efficacy and job satisfaction while creating models for students’ SEL (Elias et al., in press; Jones & Weissbourd, 2013). Studies have found that adults who can recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their own emotions more effectively teach and model social-emotional competence for their students (Brackett et al., 2008).


According to Michael Fullan, All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform, “The power of collective capacity is that it enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things—for two reasons.”

“One is that knowledge about effective practice becomes more widely available and accessible daily. The second reason is more powerful still—working together generates commitment.”

How staff interact and work together significantly influences school climate. When staff support and trust one another, that bond becomes the foundation of a strong professional community, creates a stronger commitment to their schools, promotes sharing knowledge and expertise, and encourages working productively toward collective goals.

School teams can cultivate this type of staff community by establishing structures that foster positive staff relationships and provide regular opportunities for staff to meaningfully collaborate.


Intentionally or not, adults are constantly modeling their social and emotional competence (Jones & Weissbourd, 2013). Modeling SEL competencies, mindsets, and skills largely sets the “tone” for the school community and provides students constructive examples of how to navigate frustration and stress, and maintain healthy relationships.

It is precisely because students are constantly modeling what they see that the most crucial social-emotional learning begins with the adults in a school. Because of this, administrators should be asking— do the adults in the school model self-awareness, self-management, growing social awareness, build healthy relationships, and exhibit responsible decision-making throughout the school day?

For example, when an adult makes a mistake and verbally punishes the wrong student, does the adult admit the mistake and sincerely apologize for it, or is it brushed off? Do adults in the school share appropriately about their lives and experiences to build positive relationships with colleagues as well as students? Do the adults speak about their own emotions and talk about their feelings with their students so that students understand it’s acceptable to express feelings within a school setting?

If the adults in the school do this regularly, then the school culture will benefit and this will be reflected in the students’ becoming more engaged in their social and emotional learning. Simply, to ensure students manage their SEL skills, while it may be necessary, it isn’t sufficient to impart to them SEL skills. The desired behaviors must be evidenced in the interactions between adults within the school.

Teachers may be the most essential element in children’s learning. However, when it comes to social-emotional learning, this is true of every adult in a school, irrespective of whether that adult is a teacher or fulfills some other role.

Every adult working in a school impacts students in some way. Consider the front office personnel who assist students when they walk in on the first day of school with a question or those who speak to tardy students. And what about the security attendant who interacts with students during free periods, or the cadre of other professionals who serve the needs of students and ensure that the school runs smoothly.

And just as it’s important to model SEL for the children, it’s also important for adults to consistently model social, emotional, and cultural competence when they interact with other staff, families, and community partners.

Where It All Begins

For the longest time, the sole measure of success within classrooms has been centered on academic assessments. However, research study after research study consistently shows that the evidence is overwhelming—social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential for student success.

And aside from being so foundational in student success, other studies have shown that many risky behaviors such as drug use, bullying, and absenteeism are often linked to poor social and emotional skills.

If we are serious about helping our children improve their social-emotional skills, then we must begin with the adults!

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