Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills

03/08/2015 10:11 am ET | Updated May 08, 2015

Common sense tells us that social and emotional skills -- such as perseverance, self-control or agreeableness -- help individuals have more fulfilling lives. People who persevere and work hard are more likely to succeed in a highly dynamic and skill-driven labour market. Those who work hard are more likely to follow healthier lifestyles and remain fit. Individuals who are capable of coping with their emotions and adapting to change are more likely to cope with job loss, family disintegration or crime. And of course, social and emotional skills matter because they help develop and enforce cognitive skills. Children with self-control, for example, are more likely to finish reading a book, to complete a difficult maths problem or to follow through a science project.

Excellent schools have always known those things. They make sure their students have access to the world's most advanced knowledge, they strengthen key skills such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. But their main differentiator is that they also develop character aspects such as mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience and leadership. They go beyond teaching students something to ensure that their students develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills that help them find their own way through an increasingly volatile, uncertain and ambiguous world.

If we can advance from making such 21st century schooling not just an art, but a replicable science, then governments can ensure that all students, and not just a select few, have access to 21st century learning experiences.

We are slowly getting there. Extensive research in many countries has demonstrated that we can build metrics around social and emotional skills that help to make them tangible for educators and policy makers. And we are now getting a step further: The OECD is about to publish the report "Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills", that integrates available evidence on the importance of social and emotional skills for achieving positive life outcomes. It documents methods to measure social and emotional skills and it uses innovative analytical methods to show how social and emotional skills are drivers of social outcomes, such as health, civic engagement, and subjective well-being.

Perhaps most importantly, the report indicates that social and emotional skills are not just measurable, but also malleable. That means that schools, families and communities can play an active role in fostering these skills, they can be taught at home and school through adequate practices.

Last but not least, the report provides a range of examples of learning practices that worked in developing social and emotional skills. For example, teachers can enhance children's motivation, self-esteem and emotional stability by becoming effective mentors and learning facilitators. Parents can provide warm, supportive and interactive environments through day-to-day home activities or routines. Local communities can complement teachers' and parents' efforts by providing informal learning opportunities for children to engage in a real-life, pro-social and interactive projects. Of course, there are already numerous initiatives doing that in many countries, but a more scientific understanding is essential to scale these.

And this is not the end of the story. Indeed, it is a humble beginning. There remains a lot to do to better conceptualize social and emotional skills and improve the validity of their measurement instruments. The OECD is taking this challenge on, and has embarked on developing an international longitudinal study on social and emotional skills in large cities that will allow policy makers, educators and researchers to develop and share ideas on the importance of raising social and emotional skills, to share experiences on promoting social and emotional learning, to understand the challenges schools and teachers are facing in implementing adequate practices and to learn from each other about promising policies and initiatives that have changed children's lives. The initiative should help us address the social challenges of today, and support engaged, healthy, responsible and happy citizens tomorrow.