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Social and Emotional Skills: Key Ingredients for Academic Success

By: Dr. Kate Walton, principal research scientist

Recent ACT research highlights a strong tie between social and emotional skills and postsecondary enrollment and retention rates. For educators and others who support student success, understanding which specific skills contribute to these outcomes can help improve students' readiness for life after high school.

In recognition of National SEL Day 2024, on March 8, Dr. Kate Walton, co-author of the research and principal research scientist at ACT, details which social and emotional skills are most predictive of college enrollment and retention, and how educators and advocates can encourage the development of these skills for high school students so that they are empowered in their postsecondary endeavors.

Higher levels of educational attainment are linked to greater chances of employment, higher earnings, and better health, so it’s important to instill in students skills that will increase their likelihood of succeeding academically. When you think of skills that predict educational attainment, you might think of ones related to cognitive ability, such as memory, attention, or processing speed. While cognitive skills are indeed related to academic success, there is a different set of skills – social and emotional – that are related to academic success, and they can be developed fairly easily.

In our recent research, we found that two social and emotional skills in particular – sustaining effort and getting along with others – are positive predictors of college enrollment one and two years after high school graduation, and of college retention from year one to year two.

For example, only 46% of high school students who scored in the bottom quartile (the bottom 25%) of sustaining effort were enrolled in college one year after high school, compared with 77% of students who scored in the top quartile (the top 25%).

So how do we improve students’ skills related to sustaining effort and getting along with others? There are some fairly simple, research-backed options. One activity designed to increase sustaining effort involves goal setting. Students learn to dissect goals into smaller, more manageable sub-goals and create reasonable timelines for achieving those goals. Additional activities include making to-do lists, organizing things, and tackling tasks that have been put off.

As for getting along with others, one activity is geared toward making people understand that everyone sees the world differently. You probably have seen these images at some point:

In the left image, do you see a young woman with her head turned away or an old woman’s profile? In the right image, do you see two faces or a vase? In this activity, students are encouraged to think about how someone else may have perceived the images differently, and how neither perception is right or wrong. Another great example involves everyday family discussions. Students are often asked about what they learned in school or what they did today. Try adding a small twist at the end: “What did you do today to be kind?” This habit can signal that being kind is as important to you and your family as getting good grades.

Engaging in these small tasks are just a few ways that educators and others who support students can help develop their social and emotional skills. Ultimately, this positions students to be more likely to perform well in school, attend and stay in college, and even perform better on the job after college. It’s a light lift that yields a substantial return on investment.

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