Photo: Pexels
Photo: Pexels

Charting Course with Social Emotional Literacy

Social-emotional literacy is a library. We add volumes to it as we age and develop the capacity to read with more complexity.

Themes July 14, 2017

If you have watched any school-based documentaries recently, you’re likely to have seen at least one classroom erupt into chaos. Professor of Psychology Maurice Elias from Edutopia explains what is happening here. Once students enter the school gates, they store most of their belongings away in their lockers. One thing they cannot put away, however, is their emotions. When emotional burdens are too heavy to bear, disasters like this are bound to occur.

Life, Learning, and Emotions

When a child does not understand their own emotions, they’re also unaware of another important factor: other people’s feelings. Empathy is a high-complexity, high-value skill. The vacuum created when this skill is absent results in an emotional environment prone to creating problems.

Children who lack understanding of emotions struggle not only socially and emotionally, but also academically. A curriculum gap develops. The learning received by the student in the classroom is very different to the learning teachers believe they are delivering. Elias notes:

From the earliest grades, children’s academic and life trajectory is affected by their ability to pick up emotional nuance. Stories cannot be properly appreciated unless characters’ feelings are well understood… from Dr. Seuss onward! History and current events become dry and disconnected facts unless enlivened by empathy and compassion and an understanding of what the individuals involved in the events were and are experiencing. And being able to work with one’s classmates benefits enormously by being sensitive to signs of their feelings, knowing when to back off, knowing when they are interested, knowing when they need help or support, etc.

In contrast, when students develop the ability to detect and express their own and others’ emotional nuances, they can grasp much more complex content and carry out higher order skills.

Reading Emotions

We call this ‘Social-Emotional Literacy’ (SEL): the ability to accurately read (perceive) and label emotions. SEL transforms peer groups, the playground, the classroom, families and workplaces into friendlier, safer, and more productive and successful environments.

Teaching SEL

SEL is absorbed by children from those around them, but must also be taught. Schools that teach children how to read an increasing range and depth of feelings — just as they teach an increasing range and depth of English or mathematics every year — are more successful in every way.

This is achieved in a number of ways, including through:

  • School ethos and behavioural expectations.
  • A restorative practices approach to discipline.
  • Explicit co-curricular programs targeting age-related issues or the needs of specific students; for instance, resilience programs for middle schoolers in readiness for the emotional and academic rigours of senior school.
  • A conscious effort by teachers to teach emotions explicitly in the classroom, specifically around class culture and group work.

Social-emotional literacy is a library. We add volumes to it as we age and develop the capacity to read with more complexity.

Our business is, and has always been, more than merely readying students for a job or further study. We want our students to complete their education equipped with a full complement of ‘the classics’. Our goal is to ready them for now as well as eternity.

This post is the first in a series of 4 articles. Another post in the series will be published each Friday.

Additional Reading:

For more detail on what Brisbane Adventist College is doing about social-emotional literacy, read the full article Charting Course: what we’re doing about ‘SEL’ (link no longer available).

This article was originally published on the Brisbane Adventist College website, and has been adjusted for use here. Article written and posted in Australian English.


Leanne Entermann

Leanne Entermann is the Principal of Brisbane Adventist College, Queensland, Australia. Leanne writes a series of articles titled Charting Course in which she explores topics important to the future direction of this secondary school. Read more at

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