Elementary and middle school are both pivotal times in young people's lives. Children experience a lot of emotional, physical and educational changes. They learn how to communicate with their peers and learn formative lessons that shape their critical thinking skills. What happens during these years often predict outcomes later on in school — and in life.

But experts say a skill now being taught by some schools during those years is as essential as reading or math: social-emotional learning, or SEL. SEL aims to encourage social and emotional curricula designed to support young people's well-being and academic performance. It's a complex teaching process that requires proper training for the teachers, as well.

Audrey Jackson, an upper-elementary school counselor in Bedford, former fifth-grade inclusion teacher in Boston Public Schools and 2016 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to explain exactly what social-emotional learning is and how it's being implemented in schools.

Arun Rath: I gave a broad and quick definition of what social-emotional learning is. Could you start off by breaking that down for people who are completely unfamiliar with this teaching style?

Audrey Jackson: So the first thing I'd like to address is the fact that we think of this as a “brand-new concept.” I wouldn't say you're wrong, but I would like to point out that social factors and our emotions have always been involved in the learning process, and it's a matter of really examining the way that it affects children and being more thoughtful and purposeful in how we support them to develop those skills in ways that are integrated with their academics.

The core social-emotional competencies are listed as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. These are all competencies that really affect how kids engage in a learning community, how they think about themselves as a learner and what they believe is possible going forward.

Rath: As you're running through that, it's impossible for me not to think about what our kids have been through throughout the pandemic, especially the early part of it — because what you're describing is exactly what they missed with remote learning.

Jackson: Yes. Certainly, educators all around really tried to integrate social-emotional learning to build a connection with students, even if they were learning virtually. So it was something that teachers are doing naturally, because connection is often the foundation that leads to kids trusting teachers, engaging with them and believing they can learn content.

But the other more nuanced skills, in terms of, like: taking turns playing when you're engaging in a game, what to do if you don't get something your way and how to navigate feeling like your skills are different than someone else's. Those things haven't been under supervision or under gentle coaching by educators for some time in a really consistent way.

Little ways that teachers would watch out for kids who might need a little reminder that it's okay if you lost a game, or to believe in themselves if they didn't understand something the first time. Kids have missed out on that. So they come to us with a big array of skills and deficits in terms of how they see themselves in school, how they see themselves fitting in with others and what they think their path can be going forward.

Rath: Tell us a bit more about how that kind of dynamic plays out with the teaching of social-emotional learning. Say there's a child in a classroom that throws a fit, does that change how you approach that situation?

Jackson: Every educator has a different toolbox in terms of what they bring to the table to help children. But social-emotional learning is really about trying to have a clear, consistent plan where educators are learning and their well-being is considered — because we know that impacts students' well-being and regulation. So if a child is having a tantrum and they're flipping chairs, or they're crying and ripping papers, it's not because they want that to be the thing that's happening. They lack a skill somewhere in there for how to deal with whatever is challenging them, and it feels like too much.

Maybe they're not sure how to ask for help. Maybe they don't believe that, even if they ask for help, they're capable of doing something. Maybe it's about something completely different that happened at home. We're really looking to help teachers learn how to co-regulate instead of escalating the situation — which is never an intentional thing, but it can happen.

"Having tools to navigate things when they don't go as expected, or something feels hard, really sets up a path for their brains to be able to develop and solidify memory."
Audrey Jackson, upper-elementary school counselor in Bedford

Rath: I know it's a lot deeper than just, say, conflict resolution. Talk about how, in the process of learning a particular topic, there are aspects of social-emotional learning that can either remove things that are interfering with the educational process or help the educational process.

Jackson: It's important to keep in mind that children's brains are developing all through, and even beyond, kindergarten through 12th grade. But our youngest learners are particularly susceptible for us overlooking the skills that they don't have yet.

When a kid starts believing or worrying about something that might happen — or something they won't be able to do — it's actually triggering their brain to focus on the negative and to have a stress response, which in turn detracts from their brain's capacity to learn and form new memories and engage with things. Having tools to navigate things when they don't go as expected, or something feels hard, really sets up a path for their brains to be able to develop and solidify memory and to be able to access that going forward because it's in a place where they're not stressed.

For example, there's this societal norm of like, “Some people just aren't good at math.” For kids, if there isn't work done explicitly to help them understand that math is something that you can learn, and math is not just about memorization — it can be applied to different things in different ways, and how we can work together — it can help them to be more open and engaged to learning things. Which in turn helps them feel more successful, and then when they feel more successful, they're more involved and the learning continues.

Rath: Talk about where that path leads because we started out talking about these being formative years and outcomes. When you're priming these young brains in this way, what are we hoping to get when it comes to high school and beyond?

Jackson: Different studies have shown the positive impact of social-emotional learning. A recent one that I read was the '1 to 11 effect,' that for every dollar invested in really developing a strong social-emotional program, there's about an $11 payoff of outcomes. It could be a reduced impact of kids needing some type of remedial or extra academic support. It could be a decrease in students with high mental health needs that need more intervention, and — even longer out — a decrease in people who need more affordable housing.

Social-emotional learning is so important because it affects the story of what kids think about themselves, who they are now and who they can become. It's not about just one skill, or just having a classroom meeting. It's really about how we think about ourselves within the context of our community: our learning community, town community and this broader community where, we're not quite sure where it is yet, but the kids are going there. So their belief and understanding about themselves — and their ability to have empathy for others or make sense of new, complex situations — is so important as they continue to grow and take on new challenges.

Rath: We've been talking about social-emotional learning at the elementary and middle school level, but given everything you've been saying and given what we know about how long the brain is actually developing now, this sounds like it might be a good thing for high school kids as well, and maybe even college.

Jackson: I would say even for adults and parents! I'm a parent of two young girls, and I still have to work on regulating my own emotions sometimes, because the calm brain usually soothes a brain in crisis. If we can help ourselves to be calm and regulated, we're helping those around us to be calm and regulated. And so these skills are life skills!

They're not soft skills that are being taught that many people would think of because they're not, you know, math and science. They're really core skills that are essential to being human and how we interact with each other. So yes, they are so essential when children are young, and even into middle and high school. But even working with adults, social-emotional learning is always an ongoing process, and it's something we'll continue to work on as long as we're alive.