Can Learning Social Skills in School Pay Off Beyond the Classroom?

This post was originally published on The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health blog.

This is the first of a 5-part blog series, curated by RWJF, a TEDMED Global Partner. This blog series showcases the real and tangible ways that communities around the country are supporting the healthy development of children and young adults. The series helps to set the stage for the important conversations about child health and development that RWJF will host at TEDMED this year.

By Mark Greenberg and Tracy Costigan


Social emotional skills can help students set goals for themselves and build positive relationships with peers. They can also lead to long-term societal benefits that extend far beyond the individual child.

At an elementary school in the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, the school day starts in an unusual way. Before they do anything else, students sit down at a classroom computer and select the face that best matches how they feel that morning.

If they’re feeling upbeat, they pick a green, smiling face. If they’re upset about something, there’s a red sad face. And if they feel somewhere in the middle there’s a yellow neutral face. This exercise helps these students develop self-awareness and emotional management skills. It also helps teachers recognize which students are having a tough day and where they might need help.

Ryan Coffey, a teacher and counselor at the Wisconsin school, calls this simple check-in an incredible tool that “can change the whole day.”

A 2nd grade Menominee student starts the day with mindfulness meditation.

“It’s about being proactive—before they blow up—instead of reactive. Because [incidents in the community] are hard on them, hard on their classmates and hard on their teacher. It’s traumatic for everyone. When they get older, those negative coping skills lead to the smoking, the drinking, the drug use. If we give them positive skills now … those are life skills they’ll use forever.”

This community has recognized, and put into practice, what research increasingly shows is clear: social emotional development is essential to long-term wellbeing and success.

In fact, building social emotional skills in students as young as kindergartners can have long-term benefits, not just for the students themselves but for society as a whole. Every dollar invested in effective social emotional programs in schools can bring an average of more than $11 in benefits in the long run.

These benefits come in a few different ways. First of all, students with stronger social emotional skills tend to do better in school. One study of eighth grade students found that a measure of self-discipline—one aspect of social emotional development—was a better predictor of grades, school attendance, and admission into a competitive high school program than even IQ.

Secondly, social emotional development can help students graduate from college and land a well-paying job. Children who demonstrate greater social emotional skills as young as kindergarten are more likely to have graduated from college and hold a full-time job 20 years later. Adolescents with these skills earn more as adults.

The long-term benefits of self-control, managing one’s emotions, and building strong relationships extend beyond the educational setting itself. Research shows that children with a stronger social emotional skill set were less likely to experience health problems, struggle with substance abuse, or engage in criminal activity as they got older.

All of these positive long-term outcomes benefit not just the student, but broader society. For instance, when students succeed in school and grow up to become productive adults, they’re ultimately supporting the overall well-being of their neighbors and communities. If, as adolescents grow older, they avoid substance abuse and crime, they’re also preventing associated societal costs.

Now, it’s no secret that investing early, supporting the whole child and student early on, pays off in the long run. Additional research further illustrates how early education programs promote social mobility within and across generations, helps prevent obesity, reduce health care expenditures and leads to overall higher-quality of life.

But what is new and exciting is that more and more schools are putting these social emotional principles and programs into practice the way the Menominee Nation is. Schools have always focused on building the academic skills and knowledge of students, and we’ve always viewed that as a long-term investment in our human capital. A large and growing body of research should make it clear that supporting students’ social, emotional, and physical health is just as strong an investment.


Learn more about research from RWJF and Pennsylvania State University, covering how teachers, parents, schools and others can support the social emotional learning of students.