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Posted By Amanda Leaman, Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The New York Times Magazine’s recent article, “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” by Jennifer Kahn (September 15, 2013) may have misled some readers about social-emotional learning. We’d like to clarify.

A casual reading would too easily suggest that despite occasional successes, the field of social-emotional learning in itself is such a “mess” that it is unreliable. The reality is that there are specific practices, backed by years of data, that do lead to the results schools want and need.

The flaws in Kahn’s article are primarily two. The first is of minor importance, but it adds to the confusion. It concerns her use of terms. “Emotional intelligence,” is the title, but barely used in the text, where it is replaced by emotional awareness, emotional literacy, or social-emotional learning (S.E.L.) - somewhat as if, in the intellectual realm, the ideas of perception, the ability to read, and intelligence were synonyms for IQ. The answer to Kahn’s question, “Can emotional intelligence be taught?” is No, just as is the answer to the question “Can IQ be taught?” She leads us away from the point, however. IQs are raised when young people have good schooling. A number of its components are learned at school. Similarly, schools can, and many programs and practices do, lead to children improving their social and emotional skills.

Leaving Kahn’s other less precise and clumsier terms aside, we will stick with the term social-emotional learning or its acronym, S.E.L., because it is here that we see more precise practices and outcomes.

The major flaw, though, is that Kahn appears to misunderstand what S.E.L. entails as a whole. Social and emotional skills are not a monolithic entity. Thus, statements like “So far, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L...” don’t really work. The statement is like saying "few studies have been done to determine which skills are acquired through math." Schools don’t really teach either “math” or “social and emotional skills”; rather, they teach certain sets of skills: second-grade math, first year algebra, or AP calculus. The math skills taught depend on the age of the student and the area of math in question (algebra, geometry, arithmetic, statistics). Similarly, schools don't teach either emotional intelligence or S.E.L. They can and should, however, teach many of those social and emotional skills that kids need to live and work together, especially in a school environment. Knowing the list of “which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L.” is thus not the point. What is important is knowing which skills students will need in order to meet the challenges of life. Many of these skills are very well defined (see S.E.L., below).

The “mess” in the field Kahn suggested, in this case via a quote from consultant psychologist David Caruso (“It’s a big messy field, with lots of promises but very little data. Right now I think people are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks”) is far from accurate. There are indeed “store-bought” programs that have shown effectiveness in transmitting social and or emotional skills, see What Works in Character Education. More importantly, classroom practices exist that foster the development of social and emotional skills, and three of the most essential of which can be found in CSEE’s publication, Breaking into the Heart of Character (2013). What's messy is when schools try to engage in S.E.L. without applying appropriate practices, utilizing a proven program, or even simply assessing the individual needs of their school. It’s not the field itself that is messy, but rather those standing in the field that don’t have knowledge of the tools.

For specifics of social-emotional learning’s skill areas, see S.E.L., below. For more about classroom practices that make S.E.L. more effective, see CSEE’s Breaking into the Heart of Character (2013).

Social-Emotional Learning

The people at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning ( have probably done the best work looking at specific social and emotional skills. CASEL has identified five key areas seen as essential for young people:

Self-awareness: the ability to recognize one’s emotions and thoughts, and how they influence behavior.

Self-management: the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively, depending on the situation. Self-management includes competencies like controlling impulses, motivating oneself, setting goals, and working to achieve them.

Social awareness: this area includes competency in taking another person’s perspective, in empathizing with others, and in knowing which behaviors are appropriate in certain situations, among many others.

Relationship skills: these include the ability to form and to maintain social relationships. Thus, it includes a subset of skills like communicating clearly, listening actively, resisting peer pressure, and effective conflict resolution.

Responsible decision-making: the ability to consider things like safety standards and social norms in making appropriate choices, and to consider the consequences of various actions on the well-being of both oneself and the wider group.

See more at

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