Here’s why this is even more important than subjects like English and math.

By Shimi Kang, M.D.

“MASON” WAS A HIGH achiever and a dream student in any school.

By grade 10, Mason, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, was consistently on the honor roll and a top athlete. He was known to be driven, hardworking and responsible. So it was shocking to all who knew him when he was caught plagiarizing an essay – submitting a paper he’d found online as his own work.

Since this seriously violated school policy, Mason was suspended. He was flooded with feelings of shame, anxiety, depression and self-hatred. The revelation and suspension resulted in Mason losing his place on a school sports team. This lead to further social isolation, and he became angry with his school for “dumping” him and not recognizing his “worth.” He began to lash out at coaches and team members, inflamed his parents against the school administration and retreated into further uncontrolled internet use.

Digital citizenship is a cornerstone of 21st century education. However, digital citizenship encompasses much more than adept web surfing or social media nimbleness. It transcends simple expertise. In its ideal form, digital citizenship fosters literacy, communication and responsibility. It doesn’t even require the presence of cellphones in the classroom, as exemplified by the increasing number of schools banning their use in the classroom.

Digital citizenship is built fundamentally around self-awareness and respect. That includes:

  • Respect of feelings, which addresses cyberbullying and supports healthy relationships and positive influences
  • Respect of privacy that takes into account safety, personal information sharing and online profiles
  • Respect of property online – e.g. avoiding illegal downloading, plagiarism and hacking

But Mason intellectually understood the principles of good character and digital citizenship. He also fully appreciated the consequences of behaving outside of the norms of social values and responsibility. What he lacked was the self-awareness of what drives human behavior.

So if not knowledge, values and character, you might understandably wonder, what drives human behavior? As it turns out, emotions have the greatest influence on how we learn, process, communicate, set goals and organize our lives. Simply put, emotional health is not just one more thing for educators to pay attention to, it needs to be a primary focus.

In the months leading to his crisis, Mason was sleep-deprived due to his jam-packed academic and sports schedule. At the same time, he was going through puberty, and with it massive hormonal changes, and his mood and energy level were constantly up and down. He felt tired, angry, sad, lonely, scared and stressed.

Mason had no coping skills to manage this flurry of emotions and automatically turned to the one thing he had always used to distract himself: the internet. Mason can’t quite recall making a decision to download the plagiarized essay, and said he just wasn’t thinking. In fact, he wasn’t really thinking with his higher, problem-solving, cortical brain. Instead he was reacting, using his lower, impulsive, limbic brain and went into freeze (anxiety), fight (anger) and flight (internet escape) mode.

More digital citizenship and character education would not have saved Mason from his actions. What was missing in his education was self-awareness, emotional wellness, coping skills and relationship training. Mason was missing a social and emotional education.

Social-Emotional Education

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, defines social and emotional learning as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

Social-emotional learning (or SEL) is divided into a framework of five vital core competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

The past few decades have seen too many major educational bodies fail to emphasize SEL as a cornerstone of K-12 learning. And we see the fallout from this firsthand: students – and indeed adults – who are underprepared to navigate intricate social situations, ill-equipped to manage their own complex emotions, and desperately lacking in the vital life skills of communication, collaboration and compassion. What institutions around the world are only now realizing is that social-emotional learning is more fundamental than literacy and arithmetic.

An Urgent Need in Education

SEL gives educators the opportunity to engage children in a positive way and to instill emotional consciousness, self-awareness and coping skills early, so that kids grow to be adults who are competent in these areas. Studies show students exposed to social-emotional learning during their formative years become more self-confident and fulfilled and are driven as well. Research finds these kids:

  • Perform better academically and have more positive attitudes toward school
  • Are more empathetic toward their peers and are more adept at teamwork
  • Are better able to manage stress and depression, and are less prone to substance abuse, criminal activity or incarceration
  • Are more likely to complete high school, and pursue higher education and gainful employment
  • Contribute to a healthy economy, reducing poverty and increasing equity
  • Exhibit continued, long-term improvement in their mental health, social skills and career performance

These are just a few of many evidence-based reasons why SEL is absolutely vital for students.


This post originally appeared on U.S. News

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