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Social and emotional skills will improve education and grow our economy

Dr Gloria Marsay

People faced with adversities in developing countries struggle to bridge the gap between education and work. A key challenge for 21st century schools involves serving culturally diverse students with appropriate transferable skill domains, i.e. deep human skills and advanced technical skills essential for economic empowerment in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (#4IR), as described by the World Economic Forum (Schwab, 2012).

One of the priorities of our National Skills Development Plan 2030, promulgated in 2019,  is to improve the quality of education, skills development, and innovation.  The Act proposes a multi-tiered approach and emphasises the need to understand what skills are required. Whilst the Act focuses on the need to improve occupational skills, there seems to be a gap in addressing more personal social and emotional skills.

Globally, there is growing empirical evidence regarding the positive impact of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programmes. SEL skills serve as a core foundation for learning and preparing young people to transition successfully into tertiary education and the workplace. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) offers a positive youth development framework that helps develop five core competencies in young people:

self-awareness,

self-management,

social awareness,

relationship skills, and

responsible decision making.

Durlak et al (2011) presents findings from a meta-analysis involving 270,034 participants from kindergarten age to high school students.  The participants who experienced SEL interventions demonstrated improved academic performance. The study suggests that school teaching staff can conduct SEL programmes, leading to successful outcomes for students.  The conclusion of this meta-analysis suggests that policy makers, educators, and the public can contribute to healthy development of young people by supporting the incorporation of evidence-based SEL programming into standard educational practice.

Innovative Research

An international research project began in 2018, under the leadership of Scott Solberg from Boston University and Lea Ferrari from University of Padova. The project has three phases. The first phase was to understand the educators’ perceptions of SEL skills in the learning environment.  The ultimate aim of the project is to design and implement a contextualised effective model that educators can use in the classroom to facilitate the development and implementation of SEL skills for both educators and students.

The study is recognised by the World Education Research Association,  and focuses on supporting all students, especially vulnerable and marginalised young people, whether due to low income, disability status, or being from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds. To date, 20 countries world-wide have participated.  Three countries are from the Global South, namely Guatemala, Uganda and South Africa. I am the principal investigator for collecting data from South Africa.

The first phase used an open-ended questionnaire to collect data from educators in both rural and urban areas in South Africa.  The analysis was qualitative and bidirectional.  Themes were extracted using a thematic content approach. The most common responses indicating educators’ perception of the impact of SEL skills in the learning environment, were:

improved interpersonal relations

improved communication skills

empathy

better teaching practices (including improved ability to identify learning difficulties as well as social difficulties in their classrooms)

improved emotion regulation

creating a more positive learning environment.

The most common themes extracted regarding the educators’ perception of which SEL skills are relevant to support young people in making the transition from education to work, were:

self-awareness;

social awareness and acceptance of diversity;

self-management;

effective decision making;

effective interpersonal communication.

Conclusion

Based on the evidence of studies worldwide, we may conclude that being aware of SEL skills facilitates the future success of young people. It seems prudent therefore, to find effective ways to equip educators to develop these skills, personally and professionally, in the classroom.

By developing social and emotional learning skills both educators and students are enabled to have better interpersonal relationships within a safer learning environment. The well-being of educators will be enhanced and young people will be empowered with the “deeper human” social and emotional skills needed to face the challenges and compete for decent work within the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Dr Gloria Marsay is a registered Educational Psychologist and Research Fellow at the University of the Free State. She is also the founder and director of Career Ahead cc.