There is growing recognition of social and emotional education as an aggression and bullying prevention strategy, contributing to a positive school culture where bullying is neither acceptable nor rewarding in any way. The term "social and emotional education" refers to what we sometimes call life skills or soft skills. In Ireland, I believe that it is referred to as social, personal and health education, SPHE. It includes competences such as developing a positive healthy identity, managing emotions and achieving goals, solving problems effectively, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, working with others as part of a team, resolving conflicts constructively and making responsible and ethical decisions.
There is strong international evidence that these competences learned at school, when supported by contextual processes, are key for personal development to challenge a culture of violence and bullying in schools. We have research evidence, including a report which we produced for the European Commission, which shows that social and emotional education leads to decreased antisocial behaviours such as aggression, bullying, delinquency; decreased emotional distress, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation; enhanced positive mental health and resilience; increased positive attitudes towards self and others; prosocial behaviour, such as sharing and collaboration; and improved academic achievement.
Together with my colleague, Dr. Paul Downes, and two other colleagues, we have developed a European framework on the basis of international literature on how social and emotional education may be effectively integrated in schools to promote positive development and mental health. The whole-school systemic framework that we proposed underlines various processes which need to be in place for social and emotional education to have an impact on positive student outcomes.
In the limited time I have, I will briefly describe and make recommendations on two aspects of this framework. First, there must be a curricular focus on social and emotional education, which includes direct instruction of social and emotional competences as a core content area on the timetable. Of course, that resonates with, and relates to, SPHE in Ireland. It also includes a transversal approach in which the social and emotional competences are embedded into the academic subjects, such as art, PE, science and language. This focus mobilises the students’ psychological resources to challenge a culture of violence and bullying in school, with children less likely to be engaged or involved in bullying. The curriculum needs to be in place from the early years up to high school level, adapted according to the local context, with an explicit focus on bullying intervention.
My first recommendation is that we need to bring social and emotional education to the fore of educational systems. Often it finds itself in the background. It needs to be brought in across all year groups, with sufficient time allocated to it on the timetable. It is necessary to review whether, across the whole range of year groups, we need to increase the time dedicated to social and emotional education.
My second recommendation concerns the positive school climate, to which I previously referred. This climate gives students the opportunity to observe social and emotional competences being practised by adults and peers and to apply these skills themselves in the classroom in their learning and behaviour. In such a climate, students feel safe and secure, they have a sense of belonging, understand and respect each other, empathise with the thoughts and feelings of others, build knowledge together, support and care for each other, resolve conflict constructively and make decisions responsibly.
It is difficult for bullying to thrive in such a context.
The teachers' own attitudes and behaviour serve as powerful role models in this respect. For instance, it is important that teachers in their classroom management do not rely heavily on punitive coercive measures and do not bully or humiliate students themselves. For instance, research shows us that bullying tends to be higher in schools where classroom teachers use authoritarian approaches and inflexible classroom management or where they are perceived by the students as being biased against particular groups of students. This requires, however, that all teachers need to be adequately trained not only in teaching and implementing socio-emotional education but also in developing their own socio-emotional competences. This is not just about social, personal and health education, SPHE, specialist teachers but about all teachers across the curriculum. They need to have the competences to regulate their emotions, to work on their own biases and prejudices, to be empathetic, to embrace diversity, to work as part of a team with others, colleagues, parents and children, to resolve conflicts constructively, and to engage in instructional and restorative classroom management.
My second recommendation, therefore, is about teacher training, which is that we need to start at initial teacher education supported by continuing professional learning. Teacher training programmes in higher education institutions need to include a competence framework that outlines the key competences teachers need to have to implement socio-emotional education effectively.