How Social-Emotional Learning Impacts Academic Success

For high academic performance, social-emotional learning must come first. An educator at Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School explains how it all works.

As parents, we expect our kids to go to school and focus on learning. But children aren’t immune to day-to-day stresses. A sibling disagreement or a morning rush to get to school on time can make any child struggle to focus in the classroom. This makes learning difficult, if not impossible, says Barbara Hunt, JK–5 Director of Studies at Francis W. Parker School, an independent JK–12 school in Chicago.

So how does a school help its students effectively manage their emotions so they can be productive in the classroom and, ultimately, contribute to society in a positive way? The key is social-emotional learning, and it’s an important part of a child’s education, says Hunt.

“Teachers have been dealing with emotions in the classroom for a long time, but in the 1990s it was coined Social-Emotional Learning and has become increasingly important in schools during the last two decades,” she says.

“SEL is learning about emotions and how to handle them or use them in a productive way. It’s important for developing the skills of listening, recognizing the feelings of others, disagreeing respectfully and knowing yourself as an individual and as a collaborator.”

Everyone has emotional responses to their environment, and our kids have lots of reasons to feel frustrated, but when they can learn strategies for dealing with these frustrations and moving on, they’re more productive at school and at home, Hunt explains.

“We’ve all seen the 2-year-old in the park lie down and have a temper tantrum. They don’t yet have a strategy for dealing with these emotions, but as they get older, helping them develop strategies will have an impact on how they feel, how much they enjoy what they are doing and their relationships and community membership,” she says.

For academic success

Social-emotional learning is more than recognizing and naming emotions. Students who are able to self-regulate are in a better position to perform academically, Hunt says. “No child can expect to excel if their emotions are getting in the way,” she says.

With the many opportunities students have to interact with each other, they need help learning how to transition from recess and lunch—where emotions can run high—to math class.

“This all has an impact unless someone helps them develop self-regulation strategies. Kids need to know that it’s okay to feel a certain way, but also how to reorganize their thoughts so they can participate in a reading group, for example,” she adds.

In an effective preschool environment, social-emotional learning is continually present as children navigate their environment. As students get older, they continue to learn and gain emotional intelligence with the help of their teachers.

Photo credit: Francis W. Parker School

Parker was founded in 1901 with a progressive approach to learning that differed from traditional methods of teaching. In a traditional classroom at the turn of the 20th century, “the teacher had a ruler in hand and told the students to just settle down,” Hunt describes. “At Parker, we’ve always had the luxury of being a responsive school. From high school English down to a first grade classroom, teachers are responsive to whatever comes up. When children come in upset about the news, teachers know they need to address their students’ feelings of anxiety.”

In education broadly, schools are recognizing the value of responsiveness.

“That’s why you see various curricula coming out, and when parents visit schools they often ask about the social-emotional learning curriculum,” Hunt says, adding that there is often a learning curve to get teachers up to speed. Parker, too, is building upon its existing responsive approach to gain a more measurable perspective on social-emotional learning, similar to its approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

“Our strong DEIB statement has been very important for some time, and everyone touches on this all the time. Our libraries are wonderful for showing diversity, but we still felt we needed to put learning outcomes at the grade levels,” Hunt explains. “In order to make sure you have equity and consistency, you need to make sure you have some scope and sequence.”

Techniques proven to be effective

Currently, Parker is utilizing the RULER curriculum from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence as an initial social-emotional learning framework.

The curriculum’s key features include the development of classroom charters to help students build community, something that Parker classrooms have done collaboratively for 50 years, Hunt says.

“The change for us is to take a more communal approach to everyone creating a charter in the same way,” she says. Lessons also focus on building emotional vocabulary to help children more accurately describe how they feel. “This really helps build better communication and even better reading and writing skills.”

Targeted lessons help students stop and assess their feelings during a challenging task, which translates to close literature readings that encourage students to discuss the characters’ feelings and motivations. “Are they frustrated? Excited? Proud? Did they do anything to self-regulate and how did that affect the plot?” Hunt says.

Ultimately, students are learning how to assess their own feelings when it counts most and translate those skills across subjects, experiences and grade levels as they grow.

“We’re learning how helpful it is for students to talk about how they feel before a test is passed out. How can you sit and reframe and refocus, and what strategies can you use to cope?” Hunt describes, adding that brain research indicates that calming techniques, when a child learns and uses them appropriately, can alter brain signals and help students focus and do what they need to do.

“It can make a huge difference with just four or five minutes of time.”

Content sponsored by Francis W. Parker School. Learn more at


  1. I hope to see more articles about Francis W. Parker

    I have taught and am also a parent.
    Helping kids handle emotions is an important life skill.


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