Why Do Elementary School Students Need Social and Emotional Learning?

Elementary education plays a key role in the emotional and cognitive development of young people. The ABCD (Affective­Behavioral­-Cognitive­-Dynamic) model of development “has the implicit idea that during the maturational process, emotional development precedes most forms of cognition” (Kusché and Greenberg, 2011). That is to say, we f​eel before we think. ​Because of this, if we want children to be better prepared to think and act with greater maturity, it is crucial that they have the emotional fluency and the skills to direct and regulate their feelings.

Children experience the integration between their affect (emotions), cognition (thinking), and behavior (actions) during the elementary years, but they need support to optimize their development. Adults must model and reinforce healthy emotional expression, perspective-­taking, and problem-­solving among other social and emotional skills, all while providing opportunities for children to apply these skills. Elementary students are still developing foundational emotional and cognitive abilities and are not as prepared to navigate social and emotional stress in their environments. Just as you would practice swimming in safe, shallow water long before diving into the ocean, children need a safe and supportive environment in which they can learn, develop, and practice social, emotional, and cognitive skills.

Some research and surveys to consider, particularly for elementary­-age students:

Results from a ​s​urvey of public kindergarten teachers on student readiness showed that only 7% considered being able to count to 20 or more as one of the most important dimensions of school readiness while 84% considered being able to verbally communicate wants, needs, and thoughts as among the most important. The take­-away: academic knowledge and abilities are secondary to emotional and relational competencies.

A​ s​urvey of teachers by Civic Enterprises​ found that 69% considered a lack of motivation and interest in learning among students was a problem. The same survey cites studies that have found that “students who receive high­-quality SEL instruction, including students in schools with high rates of poverty, demonstrate improved attitudes and behaviors, including a greater motivation to learn, improved relationships with peers, and a deeper connection to their school” (C​ivic Enterprises: The Missing Piece)​.


PATHS® is an evidence-­based social and emotional learning curriculum that empowers children with the knowledge and skills to:

  • handle emotions positively
  • empathize
  • resolve conflicts peacefully
  • make responsible decisions

PATHS® is based on multiple conceptual models, has decades of research, and connects an international community of trainers, coaches, and implementers. One of the key components that sets PATHS® apart from other curricula is the orientation toward an eco­behavioral systems model that simultaneously helps participants develop skills while creating positive environmental changes (i.e. promoting positive school culture). Because this is such a crucial component, PATHS® exhibits the best results when implemented school­wide over multiple years by passionate classroom teachers with strong support from administrators and school staff.

Key components for quality PATHS® implementation include:

  • Administrative support
  • Training of teachers and support staff
  • Parent engagement
  • Evaluation/fidelity monitoring
  • Curriculum lessons
  • Modeling of skills and concepts by school staff
  • Generalization & reinforcement through integration with core subjects
  • Common language
  • Full school implementation across multiple grades

Community Building Sessions is a program which helps in developing a positive classroom community where students feel they belong, are significant members of the group, and build connections with peers.

What it looks like in practice

Currently, the Sulphur Springs YMCA is implementing the PATHS® curriculum into their summer program, which serves youth K­-8. Frameworks staff are providing students with lessons twice per week, as well as training the YMCA staff in modeling and supporting the SEL concepts being taught to their youth.

In the upcoming 2015/2016 school year are working together with Sulphur Springs​ K-­8 Community School to implement PATHS® in kindergarten through 5th​ grade and Community Building Sessions in kindergarten through 8th​ grade. The Sulphur Springs YMCA is also implementing PATHS® lessons and using resources from the curriculum in the after school program to supplement what is done during the school day. The 2015­-2016 school year marks the 2nd​ year of full­-scale PATHS® implementation at Sulphur Springs and builds on Year 1 with even greater integration and consistency of implementation as well as incorporating Community Building Sessions. For the elementary grades, Sulphur Springs will reserve the first 20 minutes of each school day for social and emotional development – PATHS® lessons for 2 days out of the week and Community Building Sessions for the other 3 days.

Although Frameworks provides the training and support, the real measure of success for PATHS® is how the staff at the school embrace and fully implement the program. The most important person is ultimately the teacher and the steps they take to make the​ program their own! Melissa Pachacz, a 1st​grade teacher at Sulphur Springs, had this to say about integrating PATHS® into her classroom:

“I feel that PATHS® is helping to create the culture that I already want in my classroom. I feel that PATHS® sets aside time for us to talk about things that we feel are important to address. I especially like the feelings cards and how my students use them. When I first found out that feelings cards would have to be available to students at all times, I thought they would probably end up playing with them and not using them as a tool ­ but I was wrong. My students use them appropriately to tell each other how they feel. If someone makes someone else upset, they will grab their feelings cards off their desk, flip to the face that they are feeling and tell the student “You made me feel ____ because _____.” I feel that this is so beneficial to my students and myself ­ I don’t have to get involved, and they take ownership of their feelings. I have found that when I step back and watch, students take responsibility for their actions more often, and they argue less.”