Nothing will work unless you do…

…and yet we’re still not teaching kids how they work.

Having profiled hundreds of leaders as well as people from across a range of backgrounds, I have seen the clear patterns and links between life success, well-being and fulfilling potential with the psychological skills learnt in the teenage years. However, it’s not just what I have seen myself, this is backed by a huge amount of data and research. Literally hundreds of studies of what is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) have documented the short-term benefits and more recent studies have shown the benefits lasting across time with both economic and societal return on investment for SEL in schools (e.g. Belfield et al., 2015).

One study analysed data from 82 schools involving nearly 100,000 students looking at the impacts of SEL across a time span of 6 months to 18 years and clearly demonstrated the benefits to students from all types of backgrounds, both underprivileged and wealthy. Social emotional learning was shown to prepare students to move successfully through school and college, and to be productive workers and good citizens with positive mental health. The only catch being that without ‘quality implementation’, not using people who really know what they’re talking about or using evidence based schemes, the potential positive impact of any learning is significantly reduced (Taylor et al., 2017).

From the other end of the spectrum, the impact of a lack of SEL in schools has a huge economic cost. A recent Cabinet Office report revealed that the government in England and Wales is spending nearly £17 billion on the short-term costs of ‘picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, such as child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime’ which extends further still when looking at the longer-term impact or the wider social or economic costs’. The report suggests that the solution is to ensure that ‘everyone is able to realise their full potential by developing the range of skills we all need to thrive’ namely the following social and emotional capabilities:

  • Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);
  • Motivation;
  • Self-control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems);
  • Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills;
  • Resilience and coping.

The report found that teaching these skills led to ‘top’ job advantage, qualifications, adult mental health, life satisfaction, socio-economic benefits, labour market health and other health related outcomes. It concluded that their findings provide a robust case for increased local and national commitment to supporting the social and emotional development of children and young people.  Further support was offered by the current education secretary in February 2019 setting out the vision for building character and resilience being ‘as important as academic achievement’. The question remains however, what is actually being done?

Added to all of this I would argue that it’s critical for children to understand how the brain works. Without this knowledge the picture is far from complete. Children need to learn how to work with their brain, optimise their performance and understand the fundamental mismatch between the brain and the world we live in. This provides the backdrop to why we do many of the things which feel odd or work against common sense. For example how even a strong willed independent person can end up conforming to a group, why our emotions don’t always make sense, why analysing things in the outside world helps to create resolution but analysing things in our own head can cause massive issues.

I don’t believe it should be just leaders who learn these skills i.e. those who already have a pretty good grasp of their social and emotional capabilities.  So, I am starting a school tour where giving free talks to sixth formers. The aim is to help them understand some of the basics and provide them with access to tools and materials to support this in a more ongoing context. If you know a school that may be interested, please do let us know.



Cabinet Office report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 ‘SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING: SKILLS FOR LIFE AND WORK’ edited by Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, Early Intervention Foundation

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou


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