Why We Need Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

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When “Tyler” was a child, he was anxious.

He may have inherited his tendency to worry from his mom, who was obsessed with “what ifs” and what others thought. Or maybe it was his father, who pushed him hard in school and extracurricular activities. Whatever the case, his parents often tried to solve his problems for him, which greatly diminished his ability to cope with adversity as an adolescent.

By age 19, Tyler – a patient of mine whose name I changed to protect his privacy – was failing his college courses and became withdrawn from family and friends. His parents urged him to seek help, which led to his diagnosis of depression. Personal counseling sessions helped Tyler learn positive coping strategies and how to better deal with uncertainty, independently problem-solve, regulate his emotions and live a balanced life.

[See: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids’ Health.]

The Child Mind Institute reports that half of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14 and 75 percent by the age of 24. Many suffer from anxiety and depression.

Although Tyler found help and learned how to cope with his depression, other youth are not so fortunate. Of those children diagnosed with a mental illness, around 70 percent of them will not receive professional help, according to the Child Mind Institute. The World Health Organization notes that 1.2 million teens die worldwide each year and that most of those deaths are preventable, with suicide being the third leading cause of death among adolescents; it emphasizes the dire need to take action to improve adolescent health services, education and social support. But in many cases, as WHO outlines in its report on teen deaths, adolescents who suffer from mental health disorders cannot obtain prevention or care services because they either do not exist or because they do not know about them.

So, how can we encourage children to get the help they need, when that help is hard to find? For one thing, if we teach children and youth coping skills early, this alarming situation doesn’t have to become our new normal.

[Read: What Parents Should Know About Teen Depression.]

In an article for Edutopia, Roger Weissberg, the Chief Knowledge Officer of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, writes that social and emotional learning can enhance a student’s ability to succeed in school, careers and life. SEL can be the most proactive initiative for mental health illness prevention, as research shows that this type of learning can reduce anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, depression and violence, while increasing attendance, test scores and prosocial behavior such as kindness, empathy and personal awareness. If SEL was integrated into Tyler’s school or household earlier in life, he could have learned how to cope, adapt and find balance in high-stress situations.

SEL is powerful programming that we can implement in all of our schools to proactively educate our youth and address the issues we are trying to cope with in our society. Imagine if all schools leveraged SEL to approach student behavior, teaching students to use techniques such as meditation and deep breathing to restore their mental balance? If this approach was the norm in school, many more children would be able to develop the coping skills needed to flourish.

Research-based SEL programs have been developed to enhance students’ social, emotional and mental wellbeing skills. CASEL, a leader in the movement to bring SEL into U.S. schools, wants to make social and emotional learning an integral part of the education system. Partnerships with various school districts and organizations have led CASEL to developing SEL policies and pilot projects to help bring this education to children all across the U.S. I’ve also joined in the effort. I started Dolphin KIDS Achievement Programs, a positive mindset and life skills program aimed to teach children how to develop the emotional wellness, social connectivity, innovation, resiliency and adaptability they need to achieve success in today’s fast-paced world.

Although, the solution of integrating more SEL in schools seems simple, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. But if our children learn coping skills early, and SEL is integrated into more schools on a global scale, more children will be able to maintain balance in today’s unbalanced world.

[See: 11 Simple, Proven Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health.]

As a parent, I’ve learned the foundations for social and emotional learning begin at home. An important tip for guiding your child towards positive SEL skills is to practice empathy. Empathy helps improve your child’s self-esteem, particularly because chances are good your child may be feel alone sometimes in the challenges he or she faces. Since we were all children once, letting your child know that you made mistakes too or had the same feelings when you were young is a great way to express empathy and promote positive social, emotional and cognitive growth.

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