In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel and other researchers at Stanford conducted seminal research on delayed gratification with the well-known marshmallow studies. Essentially, the research showed that children who delayed immediate gratification by refusing a single marshmallow and waiting up to 15 minutes for the opportunity to gain two marshmallows demonstrated self-control that correlated with greater success later in life (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972). The longer a child would wait, the greater the correlation with higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and better social skills. In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the famous marshmallow study and were able to further correlate the ability to delay gratification with emotional intelligence as well as illustrate the relationship between emotional intelligence and academic and career success.
What are Social and Emotional Skills?
In the broadest definition, social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the “process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills required to succeed in schooling, the workplace, relationships, and citizenship” (Jones et al., 2017). One model describes SEL skills in three domains (Jones et al., 2017, p. 15):
- Cognitive regulation: attention control, inhibitory control, working memory and planning, and cognitive flexibility.
- Emotional processes: emotion knowledge and expression, emotion and behavior regulation, and empathy and perspective-taking.
- Social and interpersonal skills: understanding social cues, conflict resolution, and prosocial behavior.
Each skill set builds on the other. Unlike the cognitive domain of learning, which focuses on development of new knowledge and development of mental processes, cognitive regulation focuses on “the how” of developing mental processes. These skills accelerate learning, but cognitive regulation alone is insufficient without social and emotional process development.
In the category of emotional processes, skills related to emotional regulation play a significant role. The development of empathy and perspective-taking lie within this part of the model. Without the ability to self-regulate one's emotions, (beginning first with recognizing the feelings and physical manifestations of emotionally charged situations and associated reactions), the ability to use higher level mental processes is greatly compromised. It is commonly seen as being tongue-tied and using increased vocal volume or other manifestations of anger or anxiety. Physical symptoms include profuse sweating and an accelerated heart rate, associated with increased cortisol levels.
Finally, social skills are at the higher end of the SEL ladder, focusing on social cognition where emotionally capable and intelligent people are exquisitely equipped to “read the room” and defuse intense situations. People with advanced social cognition skills are said to be emotionally intelligent and are able to uncouple complex social situations and reframe their reactions. Over time with continued development, this ability expands, and with expansion, reactions to stressful life experiences, including conflict in the workplace, are managed with greater ease and success.
Development Across the Life Span
Neuroplasticity describes the lifelong capacity of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to new learning or experiences. As knowledge about brain function and brain capacity has evolved, beliefs about how adults can benefit from SEL development also have changed. In 2017, a faculty member at Yale University sponsored the largest class ever offered at Yale. The course, titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” addresses brain development through the use of behavior-based interventions such as meditation, mindfulness, and documenting the implementation of new behaviors.
Unlike traditional cognitive-based courses with knowledge assessments or tests, this course requires students to implement more positive daily behaviors as a way to affect brain redevelopment. Instead of traditional testing, the assessment of adoption of new behaviors includes strategies such as reflective journaling and recording the time spent engaging in activities such as yoga, mindfulness exercises, or meditation.
This interesting and important class not only appeals to students who have an interest in psychology but also to students who struggle with the challenges of young adult life and find themselves poorly equipped with social cognition skills to navigate the complexities of independent life in early adulthood. In fact, the demand for this class (and the important skills it fosters) outstripped three different locations on the Yale campus as enrollment grew to more than 1,200 students, which is a quarter of Yale's enrollment (Shimer, 2018).
Although this population was largely young adults, there is no finish line to social and emotional learning. As we age, the rate of change in the brain, or neuroplasticity, declines but does not come to a halt. In addition, we now know new neurons can appear in certain parts of the brain up until the day we die, and the development of social and emotional skills can and does continue across the entire life span.
In addition to individuals seeking skills to better cope with life, career, and relationships, employers also are identifying SEL skills as crucial for top performing employees. As the labor market tightens with a variety of demographic challenges affecting hiring strategies and workplace competencies, employers increasingly value soft skills as being essential for career success and advancement. Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of complex social interaction grew by almost 12% in the U.S. labor market. Despite the prevalence of discussions about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, as well as computer proficiency and coding, less social jobs including many in STEM shrank by 3.3% during the same time frame (Aspen Institute, n.d.).
What can Professional Development Leaders do?
SEL leaders have a big challenge ahead in the sense that educational professionals struggle with embracing soft skills and SEL learning with the same enthusiasm as cognitive learning. Part of this challenge is cultural. Education, and by turn educators, are socialized toward knowledge development as the superior and significant value of education. Recent traditional research findings have brushed up SEL's image by showing that improving SEL skills can enhance academic achievement.
Although data can be convincing and have the potential to bring SEL out of the shadows, what if SEL isn't additive but rather essential? Today's contemporary professional development leader has a unique opportunity to embrace and become a leader in providing SEL development as an integrated part of a full plan focusing on whole person development. Despite the desires of employers to secure individuals with advanced SEL skills, few are actually taking steps to engage in SEL development. The data are clear, and the path for innovation is wide open for those who can see the vision that learning is social and emotional.
- The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development. (n.d.). Fast facts. Retrieved from https://dorutodpt4twd.cloudfront.net/content/uploads/2016/11/NCSEADInfographic_Final2.pdf
- Jones, S., Brush, K., Bailey, R., Brion-Meisels, G., McIntyre, J., Kahn, J. & Stickle, L. (2017). Navigating SEL from the inside out. Retrieved from https://www.wallace-foundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/navigating-social-and-emotional-learning-from-the-inside-out.aspx
- Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E.B. & Zeiss, A.R. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 21, 204–218. doi:10.1037/h0032198 [CrossRef]
- Shimer, D. (2018, January26). Yale's most popular class ever: Happiness. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/nyregion/at-yale-class-on-happiness-draws-huge-crowd-laurie-santos.html
- University of Rochester. (2012). The marshmallow study revisited. Retrieved from http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=4622