Schools across the nation are exploring ways to teach foundational skills like grit, empathy, and social awareness in the classroom. Research increasingly shows that social-emotional learning (SEL) is critical to student success – in school and in life. One study reported that SEL skills predict future success better than IQ.

However, some educators are still wary of the bevy of “prosocial” programs that are currently being pitched to schools, as research on the effectiveness of specific programs is still inconclusive. Other critics are concerned that SEL may take time away from core subjects. However, another recent study suggested that SEL curriculums, delivered with trained teachers, can result in significant boosts in math and reading achievement.

Nancy Markowitz, Director of The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child (CRTWC), is a firm advocate of SEL. “What’s missing is an understanding of what SEL skills are,” said Markowitz, “which is that they are deeply embedded in the Common Core Standards. If we do not explicitly attend to them, kids are not going to succeed with the Common Core.” 

Markowitz recognises, however, that time and budget constraints make SEL programs impractical for many schools. “Teachers don’t have the time, and schools don’t have the money for more programming,” she said. “Schools are saying, ‘Enough!’”

Rather than introducing a new program to schools, CRTWC is training teachers to integrate SEL into their everyday teaching practices.

“Putting on the ‘glasses’ or the ‘lens’ of social and emotional learning allows the teacher to ask different questions about what is going on in the teaching and learning process,” Markowitz explained. “When teachers ask different questions, they come up with different possible strategies to help a child.”

For instance, Markowitz sees a key difference between asking,

“Did I teach this math concept successfully?”


“Did I provide the children enough time to talk to one another and share their results on the math problem?” 

When teachers apply the SEL lens, they give students the opportunity to grapple with the content through developing foundational skills, like communicating clearly and listening actively.

“If you want a child to be able to critique somebody else’s work, to be able to give an argument for why he or she did the problem a certain way, then the child is going to have to be able to interact with others and self-regulate any feelings of discomfort or insecurity,” Markowitz said. “And the teacher has to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes, and where they see mistakes not as failures, but as steps toward growth.”

CRTWC also believes that social and emotional training can ultimately make a teacher’s job less stressful by helping to prevent and solve behaviour problems in the classroom. Equipped with SEL tools, teachers can impart the same lessons to their students and model positive behaviours like empathy, resilience, and self-awareness.

For example, one student teacher in CRTWC’s program was recently experiencing a challenging situation with a kindergarten student.

“The child followed him everywhere,” Markowitz recounted. “He wouldn’t sit down and held onto the teacher’s pants constantly. While the student teacher was trying to be understanding, it was beginning to get really frustrating.”

But with CRTWC’s training, the student teacher started learning about the child’s life and discovered that he had lost his father the previous year. “It immediately gave the student teacher a different interpretation of that child’s behaviour,” said Markowitz. “And as a result, while the teacher was still trying to help the child become more independent, he understood the behaviour in a different way that gave him greater patience.” 

If student teachers are faced with a particularly challenging child, one strategy Markowitz recommends is the Two-by-Ten strategy developed by researcher Raymond Wlodkowski. The teacher spends two minutes getting to know the child each day for ten days. The process allows the teacher to see the child differently than simply a source of disruption in the classroom, and the child sees the teacher as someone who is interested in him or her as a whole person.

“Two minutes may not seem like much time, but it invariably changes the nature of the student-teacher relationship and the communication in the classroom,” said Markowitz.

“Relationships are a very powerful piece of the social and emotional learning lens. If the teacher starts recognising what’s going on in the context of a child’s life, the teacher will start interpreting that child’s behaviour differently. It will lead the teacher to a different set of responses, which are usually more productive.”

- By Kristie Wang, writer and media manager at Ashoka Changemakers. For more news from the Ashoka network, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on twitter.

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