Emotions Steer Thinking: Emotion + Thinking = Cognitive Development



The Center for Responsive Schools, CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning)) and the State Department of Education to name a few, believe that teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies is as important as teaching academic competencies. Actually, based upon what we now know about how the brain learns, you can’t focus on academics without social-emotional development. According to Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, “Emotions are the Rudder that Steers Thinking.” Basically, all thinking is both emotional and cognitive all at once. Our emotional interactions with the world, event, activity, task, etc, drive the way we think which changes overtime based upon cumulative emotional reactions. 

The SEL skills that are embedded into the overall curriculum and culture of the school should focus on five social and emotional competencies–cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control–and we emphasize helping students build these competencies in a safe, joyful, engaging learning environment that is developmentally responsive to their strengths and needs.


SELF-AWARENESS A child’s realistic understanding of her/his strengths and limitations and consistent desire for improvement. • Asks clarifying questions • Shows awareness of strengths • Asks for feedback • Describes own feelings • Gives an opinion when asked


SOCIAL AWARENESS A child’s capacity to interact with others in a way that shows respect for their ideas & behaviors, recognizes her/his impact on them, and uses cooperation and tolerance in social situations. • Gets along with different people • Acts respectfully in competition • Respects another’s opinion • Resolves a disagreement • Cooperates with peers


GOAL-DIRECTED BEHAVIOR/SELF-CONTROL: A child’s initiation of, and persistence in completing tasks of varying di­fficulty. • Keeps trying when unsuccessful • Seeks out additional knowledge • Takes active role in learning • Seeks out challenging tasks • Works hard on projects


DECISION-MAKING/RESPONSIBILITY: A child’s approach to problem solving that involves learning from others and her/his own previous experiences, using her/his values to guide her/his action, and accepting responsibility for her/his decisions. • Accepts responsibility • Shows good judgment • Learns from experience • Follows trusted adult’s advice • Decides between right and wrong


RELATIONSHIP SKILLS/Empathy: A child’s consistent performance of socially acceptable actions that promote and maintain positive connections with others. • Compliments or congratulates someone • Expresses concern for another • Makes polite suggestion or request • Offers to help somebody • Responds to another’s feelings

For Students

In our global 21st century society, students need more than ever to develop strong SEL competencies. Among the competencies needed for success are the abilities to communicate clearly with people from diverse backgrounds,collaborate and demonstrate self-control, actively listen, pose respectful questions, and look at situations from a variety of perspectives.

In the classroom, students with SEL competencies are better able to:

Take an active role in creating a safe learning environment

Form friendships with a range of peers

Have conversations about difficult topics

Set and work toward goals

Analyze a problem, find a solution, and put that solution into action

Manage their emotions and stay on a path to success

Navigate complex social situations

When students share their hopes and dreams, take part in developing the classroom expectations, and participate in the development of a safe environment, they become a community of learners. This creates a climate where students are more comfortable talking about learning, taking risks, and being challenged. When students learn strategies for having meaningful conversations with classmates, they are better equipped to face difficult situations and challenging interactions outside the classroom too.  SEL provides a foundation for creating an open and accepting learning environment, developing new friendships, breaking down cliques, and keeping new cliques from forming. Ultimately, students develop trust in themselves and others, build friendships with a broader range of classmates, and learn how to interpret the world.

For Teachers

As a teacher, you know the challenges of adapting to changing initiatives while providing a quality education for all students.  SEL enables teachers to provide consistency for students with strategies and practices that help create a predictable, comfortable, and supportive learning environment. As a result, classroom—and individual—stressors are dramatically reduced, increasing students’ engagement with learning, improving academic achievement, and allowing all students to flourish.

By teaching and modeling the five SEL competencies, teachers can better:

Plan and facilitate small group and collaborative learning

Facilitate rich student discourse

Create integrated lessons that meet a wide range of student needs

Ensure students can be self-directed in their learning

Create a classroom environment that is safe and kind 

*Research confirms the importance of SEL skills and their connection to academic progress. A meta-analysis of over 200 school-based SEL programs found that students who receive SEL instruction had more positive attitudes about school and improved an average of eleven percentile points on standardized achievement tests compared to students who did not receive such instruction (Durlack, Dymnicki, Schellinger, Taylor, and Weissberg, 2011).

For Parents

In an SEL environment, your children are learning and growing academically, socially, and emotionally as they develop the skills needed for college, career, and most importantly lifelong success. In the classroom, teachers actively facilitate conversations in both whole-group and small groups about challenging and relevant topics. As students are develop their critical thinking skills, they learn how to interpret the world around them and ask questions that will lead to change. Also, gain skills to observe similarities and differences in areas such as language, religion, and politics their community, and develop respect and empathy for others through effective communication and collaboration. As a result, they are better equipped to face complex situations and have challenging conversations, both inside and outside the classroom, empowering them to contribute their ideas, take part in their community, and support causes they care about.

SEL prepares your children for the future by helping them:

Cultivate confidence and leadership skills

Develop a sense of empathy as well as individual responsibility

Create interpersonal relationships with diverse fellow students and colleagues

Work collaboratively in groups

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