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 feel 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 survey 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 takeaway: academic knowledge and abilities are secondary to emotional and relational competencies.

A survey 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” (Civic 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.