Social-Emotional Skills: The Core of Future Readiness

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA, Future of Learning

We need to consider how to better incorporate social-emotional skills into learning to help students develop skills and practices necessary for the future. Sometimes my five-year-old daughter Chloe melts down at bath time. Her behavior is pretty typical of a tired child: running away, seeing how close she can get to hitting me, attempting to engage in extended dance routines instead of getting in the tub. I have my ways of intervening, trying to calm her down and corral her toward the waiting water. But of course, they don’t always work. Sometimes, things escalate. We both get angry.

One of Chloe’s ways of handling these intense moments is to retreat into her turtle shell. She curls up into a ball on the floor, puts her hands over her head, and takes some time to re-center herself. She’ll even exclaim, “I’m going into my turtle!”

Chloe learned this technique in a program called The Dinosaur School that her child care center embeds in its preschool and pre-kindergarten classes throughout the core academic year. Using characters who are dinosaurs as guides and examples, the program’s teacher, Ms. Kathy, helps the children learn basic social-emotional skills such as taking turns, speaking kindly to classmates and expressing anger in acceptable ways. There is simple but regular homework that asks students and parents to discuss strategies related to the week’s lesson or invites students to draw responses to prompts.

Using a program called Dinosaur School, Katherine Prince's daughter is learning social-emotional skills that will prepare her for later in life. Upon completing the pre-kindergarten version of the program this spring, Chloe earned her first “diploma.” She understood herself to have graduated from Dinosaur School.

I’m glad that Chloe has had deliberate and regular exposure to social-emotional skills development. Yes, I want her to play nice with others. And I prefer when she does not express her frustration by hitting me. More importantly, she has had early and deliberate coaching in building foundational skills that will support her in navigating future learning experiences and in preparing for her far-off work life and other adult responsibilities.

As highlighted in “Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” developing core social-emotional skills will be essential for mastering the new foundation for readiness that we think will help people navigate an uncertain and rapidly changing future of work. We will need to develop our uniquely human capabilities in order to distinguish ourselves from and work effectively alongside smart machines partners, navigate changing employment structures and reskill and upskill frequently.

Babies born today will be graduating from college in the year 2040. This new foundation for readiness applies to them, as well as to all of us who will still be working and supporting learners then.
Download a larger .pdf of A New Foundation for Readiness, an illustration from “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out.”

To take a closer look at the core social-emotional skills:

  • Deep self-knowledge will help people develop visions for our lives and continue to discover their own personal and professional strengths, weaknesses, passions, and emotional patterns.
  • Individual awareness will help people recognize and regulate our emotions; understand the triggers that spark them; and shift to more desired, productive emotional states when needed.
  • Social awareness will help people recognize others’ emotions and perspectives, enabling us to build relationships in support of learning, collaboration, and innovation and foster inclusive work environments.

These skills promise to support today’s young people in navigating successfully different possible futures of work and different degrees of support for adapting to changing circumstances.

K-12 educators can begin fostering this new foundation for readiness by finding more ways to teach and integrate skills-based social-emotional curricula, guiding the development of emotion-based skills and practices over time. Postsecondary educators can also integrate support for deep personal development, preparing students to become more resilient and adaptable and enabling them to push through discomfort, navigate change, and identify aspirational goals.

Organizations currently working in this space can be resources in formulating new strategies around social-emotional skill development:

Schools, districts and state departments of education need to begin considering how to move past the historic focus on mastering content and the more recent focus on thinking and doing to establish a new focus on feeling and relating. This new focus will enable students to develop the skills and practices necessary to meet the emerging realities of work with adaptability and resilience.

For more on what the changing nature of work could mean for the future of readiness, download “Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out.”