Soft skills and emotional intelligence are quickly climbing the ranks of important and sought-after abilities across industries. Technology and business practices continue to evolve so quickly that set skills take a backseat to the ability to constantly learn new ones. As a result, businesses are placing an increased emphasis on fluid intelligence and other soft skills that people demonstrate.

From teamwork to curiosity to work ethic to empathy, today’s most qualified candidate is better at reading a room than reading a textbook.

The latest round of research proposes that some of these skills can perhaps be taught, or at least fostered, from an early age and through far more specific educational programs than previously thought.

In particular, social-emotional learning is an emerging trend that’s enjoying as much popularity with large companies as it is with small experimental schools. Here’s why.

Office professionals having a discussion in a conference room


This new term is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

What were once thought to be secondary skills that people either did or didn’t develop are now perceived as teachable tools for success. They are also seen as contributors to a healthier educational climate and improved across-the-board academic success.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) uses broad social and psychological techniques to enable students to solve problems, manage emotions and communicate well—all skills that translate directly to lifelong success at home, in the office and everywhere in between.

CASEL outlines the primary skills being taught and refined in SEL programs:

  • Relationship skills: The ability to create healthy, meaningful relationships with a variety of individuals from varying backgrounds.
  • Self-management: The ability to control emotions, thoughts and behaviors in the numerous situations a person encounters throughout their life.
  • Self-awareness: The ability to understand personal emotions and thoughts and how they lead to particular behaviors.
  • Social awareness: The ability to see a situation from the perspective of someone else and empathize with that person, including people from different cultures and backgrounds.
  • Responsible decision-making: The ability to make healthy decisions about behavior and social interactions based on ethics, safety concerns and social norms.

Educators believe there are ways to introduce these concepts in the classroom environment from the earliest stages, thus encouraging emotional learning through a social context.

Social-emotional learning focuses on practicing skills associated with emotional quotient (EQ) just as much as traditional educational programs focus on intelligence quotient (IQ). It turns out, both are critically important for well-adjusted and successful personal and professional lives.


An increasing number of classrooms are experimenting with SEL programs integrated into existing curriculum. This includes discussing personal struggles with students as well as crowdsourcing ways to deal with them before acting out practice scenarios to drive the point home.

Students might share an upsetting or edifying incident from their home lives, where other students will indicate if they have had similar experiences and, if so, how they handled it and whether it led to a successful outcome.

Teachers facilitate these discussions much the same way they might use Socratic dialogue in a later-stage literature or philosophy class. By asking open-ended questions and encouraging participation, there is an inherent social component that both allows students to absorb the spectrum of similar and different experiences as well as feel called to participate, both key moments for SEL growth.

Educators and researchers have known for years that emotions can help or hinder a student’s ability to learn and perform well in an academic setting. Recently, an aggregate of 213 different studies showed that students who received SEL-oriented education had achievement scores that averaged 11 percentile points higher than those who did not.

Instead of making school an isolated destination for learning, modern educators recognize the complex relationship between home life, social life and education. It’s often impossible for adults to focus well when they’re worried about outside factors. The same is true for children.

The ability to process, handle and overcome various personal life difficulties is imperative for children as they navigate their foundational years. And how they learn to act in these situations can have a lasting impact on their ability to cope with stressors, communicate with coworkers and succeed in today’s increasingly complex professional environments.


Employers expect a lot of different roles and tasks from their current employees, and that is only growing more true as we look toward the future. Forbes and The Harvard Business Review regularly cite emotional intelligence and modern leadership techniques as key traits that employers search for in candidates. They also note that these characteristics are scarce in many applicant pools.

Multiple studies have found that focusing on social and emotional skills is correlated with graduation rates, academic success, career success, mental health and citizen engagement. In short, there is scientific proof that learning as much about good social and emotional behavior as you do about reading, writing and arithmetic is directly beneficial to virtually every aspect of the human experience.

The World Economic Forum studied current and future Top 10 Skills cited as most desirable by employers across the globe. In the 2015 study, “Emotional Intelligence” did not crack the Top 10. The future survey indicates that by 2020, Emotional Intelligence will be the number 6 most important and in-demand trait employers look for.

Creativity, which sat at number 10 in 2015 will ascend to number 3 by 2020. These facts highlight the growing trend toward emotionally-intelligent and creative thinkers in the workforce.


Traditional taskmasters and rigid thinkers, once thought to be the ideal employee, are falling from favor as new thinking recognizes the importance of flexible and compassionate thinkers in our rapidly-evolving world.

Employers have also learned that there is a relatively large disconnect between on-paper achievements and real-world problem-solving, decision-making and communication skills. As workplace satisfaction, collaboration and mental health continue to rank near the top of employee and employer goals, social-emotional learning will continue its rise into the spotlight.


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