Why social and emotional skills matter more than ever

By Javier Suarez-Alvarez
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Photo credit: SpaceX
A mannequin dressed in a spacesuit is seated in the driver’s seat of an electric sports car. Within minutes, the car escapes Earth’s gravity, crosses the orbit of Mars, and becomes a satellite of the Sun. It may sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie, but this actually happened earlier this year. And although it was little more than a publicity stunt, the event still underscores how fast our world is changing.

The rapid pace at which technology is developing today offers both new opportunities for society to evolve, and new challenges to overcome. As the world becomes more globalised and complex, people are interacting more with different cultures, job mobility and uncertainty are on the rise, and information (or disinformation) is more widely accessible than ever before.

As our world has changed, so too have the skills necessary to navigate it. Classical academic skills such as math, reading, and science are still necessary, but they are no longer enough to ensure future success and well-being for the students of today. Social and emotional skills are increasingly important drivers of personal and professional development in modern societies. Today’s students will need to be able to adapt to an uncertain future, cooperate with people from different backgrounds, solve problems collaboratively and generate innovative solutions to new challenges.

Our willingness to cooperate, trust and tolerate others is crucial to interacting in diverse societies, and in jobs that demand innovative thinking and teamwork. Resilience and optimism can make it easier to cope with difficulties such as social immobility or job insecurity, and can bolster our personal and professional prospects. Skills such as creativity and meta-cognition, which are more difficult for machines to replicate, will become essential as automation continues to seep into the workplace. Our capacity to think independently and take responsibility for our actions (and thoughts) will reduce the chances of being deceived. Motivation and self-confidence, meanwhile, can have a strong influence on cognitive development and educational attainment.
If we want to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow, we need to make sure they are equipped with the right skills today.
Indeed, research shows that young people with strong social and emotional skills are more likely to have better grades, better jobs, and be in good health. They are also less likely to commit violent or criminal acts, more likely to be happy, and they are often more willing to become active members of society. Conversely, students who lack social and emotional skills often become less engaged in school as they progress in their education.

All students could be affected by factors that hinder the development of these skills (e.g., dysfunctional families, overprotective parents, cyberbullying,). Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more vulnerable to these factors, as they often have fewer opportunities to receive adequate support from their close environment, and are more likely to attend lower quality educational institutions. Students who lack social and emotional skills often engage in antisocial behaviours and have difficulty learning, and are therefore more likely to drop out of the school. While it is true that educated students face an uncertain future, those who do not complete their education will have fewer opportunities to succeed in the years to come. Schools, teachers and families therefore have an essential role to play in fostering not only the cognitive development of young people, but their social and emotional development, as well.

Policy makers have a role to play, too. The OECD recently launched a study on the social and emotional skills of students, as part of a broader effort to place greater emphasis on the development of these skills in schools. Our Study on Social and Emotional Skills is an international survey that will provide new evidence to help identify the policies, practices and environmental conditions that can encourage the development of social and emotional skills. Launched in 2016, the study is one the most ambitious international efforts to develop a comprehensive set of metrics around social and emotional skills.

Our aspiration is that this study will help enhance policies to improve the development and well-being of  young people. When results of the survey are published in 2020, policy makers will be able to make evidence-based arguments for prioritising social and emotional development in their policy agendas. Our work could also be used to guide reforms aimed at promoting the development of social and emotional skills. If we want to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow, we need to make sure they are equipped with the right skills today.


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