Prioritizing socio-emotional skills to build a fairer society


Small intentional changes may seem fleeting, but can have a huge impact on young people’s social-emotional development – and their learning, writes Bethia McNeil

Small intentional changes may seem fleeting, but can have a huge impact on young people’s social-emotional development – and their learning, writes Bethia McNeil

22 November 2022, 5:00


The development of social and emotional skills in our college is the foundational element that underpins learning and relationships. We are not alone in this belief. The Education Endowment Foundation and a large body of research have highlighted the long-term impact of social-emotional skills throughout young learners’ lives.

In Pearsons School report, the characteristics that teachers believed learners needed to thrive in today’s society were resilience, kindness and self-esteem. These do not happen by accident, but through intentional and thoughtful implementation of observable quality practices.

Take diversity. It is important to “meet all people where they are” and promote diversity by considering, exploring and centering the experiences and emotions of others, while reflecting on our own responses.

The equity effect of this learning, where in high quality teaching those with the lowest levels of socio-emotional skills develop the most while supporting the learning of their peers, means that it there is much to be gained for colleges, students and society.

Social-emotional learning has always been, to some extent, at the mercy of fashion and politics. The shared language and practice between schools, pedagogical teaching and out-of-school provision has been weak and therefore we have arguably failed to recognize that young people ‘transfer’ learning into and through all areas of their lives – a failure that needs to be addressed if we want young learners to build a more just society.

Create the right environment

At YMCA George Williams College, we have an evidence-based approach to developing social-emotional skills that connects all of these areas, including a theory-based approach results frame and one series of measures to help organizations understand the extent to which they are promoting this development. One of our key tools is the Quality Assessment of the Social and Emotional Learning (PQA) curriculum, developed by the David P. Weikart Center for Quality Youth Programs in the United States.

The PQA helps structure how we center “quality” in the development of social-emotional skills. Just as these skills develop in all areas of young people’s learning, the staff practices that support them must also be present. Creating environments that support the development of social-emotional skills is the most important step we can take as managers of educational spaces.

Setting up a safe space

At the root of all this is “safe space” – creating environments of emotional and psychological safety for all students. This involves using positive and warm language to convey inclusion and mutual respect, showing a genuine interest in the well-being of young people, and proactively managing group work to create opportunities for speaking and sharing. ‘listen to others.

Support learners

‘Favorable environments’ are based on a ‘safe space’. They include educators who name and recognize young people’s emotions and help them name them too. They also include a discussion of how we deal with our emotions and what can create certain emotional responses.

Become interactive

The “interactive environments” aim to foster teamwork and facilitate the development of common goals. They include group process skills, promoting responsibility and leadership, and encouraging young people to mentor each other. They also include formal opportunities for young people to learn and value difference.

Engage pproactively

And finally, “engaging environments” focus on setting plans and goals, providing support for student interests and fostering learning. This could involve providing all students with opportunities to take on responsibilities, developing peer mentorship programs, or group leadership opportunities.

Each of these tips may seem small and potentially fleeting, but evidence shows they are not. The PQA tips provides us with a checklist of simple and practical ways in which we can improve our learning environments so that they are also social-emotional environments. This ensures that our classrooms support everything students to learn, grow and reflect on their relationships with themselves, their peers and the world around them.

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