You Don’t Have to Choose: Why True Success Depends on Academic Achievement and Social and Emotional Competence

By Dr. Elinor Scully, Head of School

The summer months usually afford educators an opportunity to catch up on their reading, both for pleasure and professionally. This summer was no exception for me, and one of the most gratifying aspects of my summer reading was to see the proliferation of more research supporting some of the major goals and objectives of Langley’s next strategic plan. Educators have long known about the benefits of social and emotional learning for students of all ages, but particularly young children. However, the research supporting the long-term interpersonal and academic outcomes for students who develop these vital capacities is becoming clearer.

Research related to The Fast Track Project, administered in schools in North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and Pennsylvania, reveals that the development of specific social and emotional skills can be tied to success in later life. (Brown, The Washington Post) Particularly, skills related to problem solving, successful peer relationships, empathy, cooperation, collaboration, listening skills, assertiveness, and kindness are linked with positive school affiliation, achievement, resisting negative social behaviors, and ultimately finding stable full-time employment in young adulthood.

“These findings add to a growing body of evidence—including long-term studies drawn from data in New Zealand and Britain—that have profound implications for educators. These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness—strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education, and succeed in many other areas of life.” (Bornstein, The New York Times)

The Langley School has long been committed to developing these capacities in our students. Our new strategic plan, however, seeks to take our expertise in this area further and to develop a more comprehensive program to target these well-researched skills. I am often surprised when these skills are referred to as “soft skills” or “non-cognitive,” suggesting that they are somehow less important and even easily achieved. In point of fact, being able to regulate negative emotions, to deeply appreciate the perspective of others, and to simultaneously balance the ability to assert oneself and work collaboratively and effectively with others are not simple, “non-cognitive” tasks. They are essential, and most successful adults I know continuously work at perfecting the art of these so-called “soft skills.”

We are in the fortunate position at Langley to start building these skills with our youngest students on day one. Research supports that this is when to do it, by kindergarten for sure. We have a mission that sees the mutually reinforcing and equally essential dependence of academic and social and emotional skills. And we have parents who share in a commitment to raise academically sophisticated students, who act with heart and mind in equal measure. Schools should not privilege academic achievement over social/emotional competence and moral goodness. My summer reading, whether from The Huffington Post or The Washington Post, The New York Times or Kim Marshall’s excellent Educational Digest, reinforced once again that that is a false choice. And this new research reminded me that our mission at Langley to raise students who can lead lives of self-defined meaning and purpose requires we attend to these skills deliberately and comprehensively as soon as students arrive on our campus.