Teaching niceness

“Social and emotional knowledge” can be taught in school “just like trigonometry or French grammar,” some psychologists believe. From the Boston Globe:

. . .  a typical teaching unit might include a role-playing exercise, or a set of diagrams breaking down the components of different facial expressions, or, in older children, a discussion of the subtle differences between disgust and contempt.

Some of this sounds like the social skills classes offered to kids with Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism.

Around 10 percent of American grade school and high school students now go through some form of social and emotional learning curriculum, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based emotional learning research organization. A handful of states have instituted emotional learning guidelines for their public schools – the most comprehensive is Illinois’s, which sets “self-management,” “social awareness,” and “interpersonal skills” benchmarks, among others, for kids at each grade level.

At high-scoring Scarsdale Middle School and elsewhere, empathy is showing up in the curriculum, reports the New York Times.

English classes discuss whether Friar Laurence was empathetic to Romeo and Juliet. Research projects involve interviews with octogenarians and a survey of local wheelchair ramps to help students identify with the elderly and the disabled. A new club invites students to share snacks and board games after school with four autistic classmates who are in separate classes during the day.

Los Angeles is using Second Step, which “teaches empathy, impulse control, anger management and problem solving,” in its middle schools.  Seven Seattle elementary schools are using Roots of Empathy.

I’m dubious about adding another responsibility — one traditionally handled by parents — on to teachers’ shoulders. It’s one thing to insist that students learn to behave in class; it’s another to take on their social and emotional development. Also, I know there’s little research backing the effectiveness of these programs in changing students’ behavior.

Teachers, what do you think? Should “relating” become the fourth R?

About Joanne


  1. Anne Marie says:

    Dear Joanne,
    I enjoyed your post. Its funny because I also read another post today discussing the same thing: Leadership’s Future: The Need For Empathy. What saddened me, but I guess did not shock me was how the parents reacted. Should we teach this at school because it is not taught at home? I guess we need to, however with these role models, how much will change?

  2. Andy Freeman says:

    Schools already teach social and emotional knowledge better than they teach trig, reading (to understand the unfamiliar, not to spot cues to the familiar), and other traditional subjects. However that’s a low bar. And since they teach bad social and emotional knowledge, why should I think that trying to teach will work out well?

    Yes, the theory that they don’t teach what they’re tasked to teach leads to “if we ask them to teach social and emotional knowledge, their failure will be better than what they’re doing now”.

    However, I’m an opimist. I’d like schools to teach trig, reading, and other traditional subjects.

  3. This all assumes that the teachers have high emotional intelligence.

    I’m against this – if a student violates school/classroom rules in a way that makes one suspect that he/she needs the education, fine.

    Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. With school budgets shrinking, we need to weed out the unnecessary tasks – like niceness, social responsibility, tasks of daily living (how to make a budget, etc.) – all things that families should take responsibility for.

    By focusing on the core jobs, we make it easier for the public to judge whether we are doing our jobs.

  4. Robert Wright says:

    I take it as a very important part of my job.

    Children don’t become civilized in a vacuum and generally, they have more contact with teachers than their parents.

    Children who aren’t taught how to behave do not learn it on their own.

    Should it be a separate class? Should I teach out of values textbook that some committee in Sacramento slaps together? Should I adopt a curriculum that my district purchases from a consultant/salesman? Oh, no. I would be skeptical of any top-down directives on this.

  5. Andromeda says:

    On the one hand, I think schools need to have resources like this available for kids who need them, and be alert for who those kids may be. And I understand that a certain investment in classroom and school culture, while initially time-consuming, can pay off down the line in terms of increased ability to use classroom time productively.

    But that’s about as far as I can be sympathetic. Like you, I feel that teachers are asked to shoulder more and more responsibilities — responsibilities which are traditionally a parent’s role, and which crowd out academic subjects. (Do parents always shoulder their responsibilities? No. But they’re still the ones with the comparative advantage there.) I think a program like this implemented in the way programs often are — with minimal training and oversight — would be an utter waste of time (as noted above, it assumes teachers have high emotional intelligence, which is not always true, and even when it is, that doesn’t mean you know how to teach it).

    I would want to see some kind of evidence that the program had concrete results which either did not detract from the academic options, or substantially improved a problematic social climate, or both. And I would want anyone responsible for implementing it to be adequately trained (and any teachers not responsible for implementing it taught its vocabulary anyway).

  6. No.

  7. Anonymous says:


    While kids are in school, they should be taught this sort of thing by example and by being expected to follow rules.

    But as a teacher, I am not a parent. As a parent, I don’t want some committee in Sacramento OR Joe classroom teacher to decide the minutia of what values are appropriate for my child to have.

    Whatever happened to good-old fashioned religion? Remember when we learned values by going to church?

  8. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    The second step should be the principal’s office, the third step out the door.

  9. Are people less sociable in Europe and Asia, where there’s long been less classroom time spent on social and emotional development than in the U.S.?

  10. I am very much in agreement with Robert Wright in his comment above. I have long held the view that teachers, especially in elementary school, have always taught social skills and behavioral values. However they do so because it is a part of our culture, not because it is specified as part of their job. Indeed, like Robert Wright , I would be vary wary of any “top down” directive.

    There again seems to be a “program mentality” operating here, the idea that if we don’t have some sort of formal “program” for social skills we are not doing anything about social skills. I think that is very shallow.

    I have long complained that the field of education has very poor research, and that is largely because the field of education, for some reason, has never thought it worthwhile to go into classrooms and observe what actually happens, to observe carefully, critically, intensively, and extensively. Apparently it is easier to pontificate about what should be, rather than to look at what actually is.

    My question is not “Should teachers teach social skills?”. My question would be “How do teachers teach social skills?”.

    So, Robert, how do you teach social skills, morality even? I mean that as a very serious question. Have you done any writing along that line? I think it’s likely that anything you say, from simple description to deep analysis, would be of benefit to others.

  11. I never went to church and I somehow managed to develop decent social skills and/or manners. I think that the school and the teachers need to insist on a more formal, less touchy-feeley atmosphere, where kids can’t tease, bully or get too personal with each other. If they can’t be polite (not nicey-nicey, not warm and caring, just polite) then they can be removed from the situation.

  12. Ponderosa says:

    Our district has an advisory program where these sorts of skills are supposed to be taught. I’m not sure it’s working. At times, I’m sure the lessons do not work –kids regard them as a joke. Sometimes it seems as if the lesson may raise kids’ consciousness of the ugliness of certain kinds of behavior that they engage in. Often I think, these are the issues that great literature often addresses. Why don’t we kill two birds with one stone and teach this stuff through literature? (By the way, our first character ed curriculum, Positive Action, I regard as an outright fraud –supported by “research” done by the company’s owner. Lame lessons, but satisfies a district’s need for a Program –cf. Brian Rude’s post).

  13. Last year, our school district tried to implement the Second Step program. This program was to be implemented across all grade levels, k-8. No information was provided to teachers at the end of 06-07 school year, no training was provided at the start of the school year. As far as I know, the only people who received any training at all was school site administrators, not the people who were supposed to “teach” the curriculum.

    At my school site, I was given a binder of activities and a script was provided. The rub for me was that I was supposed to teach this during my two hour Language Arts class for those students who needed extra help in this subject and who were scoring as “Basic” as defined by the CAT-6. This was supposed to take place every week on Wednesday, a day in which we already have a shortened schedule. This one group of students would have missed out on curriculum that I was supposed to cover on my pacing guide.

    After a few weeks, I simply stopped teaching it. First, I felt that I was doing a disservice to my students because of the missed Language Arts curriculum that I could not cover. Second, there were times as a teacher that I felt uncomfortable with some of the material that Second Step covers. Finally, the two core rules in my classroom are treating everyone with dignity and respect. I feel that by the examples that I provide every day in interactions with students did a much better job than any canned curriculum.

  14. Many of the SEL programs have not been researched, but one that’s in a related realm has: the Penn Resilience Program. More than a dozen rigorous studies over the last 15 years, several done by researchers outside Penn.

    Penn insists on letting teacher’s gain the skills first for themselves. Teachers who have found the constructs and skills helpful personally are then able to teach.

    Finally, “Positive Education”, as Martin Seligman terms it, should result in higer achievement in other subjects. Both/and, not either/or.

  15. It all sounded good until the part about interviewing octogenarians and sharing snacks with the autistic kids. Those people are autonomous individuals who do not exist for the pleasure or convenience of a gang of educators and their students; they are not objects to used as manipulatives in someones curriculum. This idea seems ethically dubious at best.

    Perhaps a simple unit on etiquette would be more appropriate.

  16. Roger Sweeny says:

    Finally, the two core rules in my classroom are treating everyone with dignity and respect. I feel that by the examples that I provide every day in interactions with students did a much better job than any canned curriculum.

    You can say what’s important when you talk the talk. You show what’s important when you walk the walk. I suspect young people get more from the latter than the former.