Social-Emotional Learning and at-risk Children and Youth

Yvonne I. Larrier
Indiana University South Bend

Tinisha Lewis

Author Note

Yvonne I. Larrier, Indiana University South Bend; Tinisha Lewis, GCSCORED Inc., Caribbean. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Yvonne Larrier, Counseling & Human Services Department, Indiana University South Bend, South Bend, IN 46615. E-mail:


More and more, behaviors of children, youth, and communities are being classified as at-risk in societies locally and globally. Behaviors associated with the at-risk classification are aggression at home, school and in the community, underperformance and underachievement at school, and truancy. Acquiring social emotional competencies (SECs) is an effective way of diminishing and eventually eliminating these behaviors. Acquiring these SECs from as early as kindergarten acts as a protective factor against maladaptive and risky behaviors later on in life. Social emotional education, or learning, is the acquisition of five core skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. As children and youth acquire these skills, they are better able to relate to self, others, and situations. These highly developed SECs can be seen in children’s enhanced academic achievement and performance, decreased incidents of violence, improved school attendance, and empathy.

Keywords: Social-emotional learning, at-risk children and youth, mental health

Risky Behavior

According to Feinstein (2002), an individual is considered at-risk for a specific event or condition “…if they are suitably susceptible to that event and if it has not yet occurred” (p. 328). In today’s society, there are many negative factors that affect children and youth at various stages of their lives. Risky or negative behaviors at the early stages of a child’s life, including aggression, antisocial attitudes, poor academic performance and achievement, and truancy, can be curbed or prevented with the help of family members, the school, and the community’s involvement (Bierman et al., 2003).

According to Terzian, Andrews, and Moore (2011), “risky behaviors can be associated with serious, long-term, and – in some cases – life-threatening consequences. This is especially the case when youth engage in more than one harmful behavior” (p. 1). Simple disciplinary incidents of behaviors, when not addressed early in a child’s academic career, can lead to further risky behaviors such as poor academic achievement and performance, as well as intra- and interpersonal difficulties. When not addressed, these behaviors can result in children and youth becoming susceptible to engaging in drug use, among other risky behaviors, later in their lives (Bierman et al., 2003).

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013) found that in any given year, one in every five children (20%) in the United States would be diagnosed with a mental illness that would adversely impact their lives at home, school, and in the community. In addition to this, fewer than one in five children diagnosed have received appropriate treatment. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2011) found that one of the main health issues that plagued youth within the United States was substance abuse. Furthermore, alcohol was considered the most favored addictive substance among youth, followed by marijuana, cigarettes and prescription drugs.

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2011), prior to the age of 18, nine out of ten high school students met the criteria for addiction, and began illegally drinking, smoking, and using prescription drugs. The Center also found that 34.4 million (46.1%) children and youth under the age of 18 lived with an adult substance abuser.

Factors Contributing to the At-Risk Children and Youth Crisis

There are multiple reasons for children and youth’s at-risk behaviors. Examples include lack of adult supervision, television commercials, exposure to behaviors such as domestic violence, bullying, and trauma, along with societal issues and lack of social emotional competencies (SECs). A study conducted by Weisman and Gottfredson (as cited by Durlak, Weissberg & CASEL, 2007), found a contributing factor for children and youth who engaged in at-risk behaviors stemmed from the lack of adult supervision given to them after school. The probability of children and youth engaging in at risk behaviors, experiencing poor academic performance and achievement, and decreased school attendance, increased when they were left unsupervised.

The research of Snyder, Milici, Slater, Sun, Strizhakova (as cited in the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2011) showed as well that youth who viewed alcohol commercials on television were more likely to use and abuse substances. The researchers identified that “… 7.5 percent of all alcohol product advertisements–and 9.0 percent of all such advertisements on cable television — appear on programs where the underage audience is more than 30 percent” (pp. 72-73).

Being a bully also puts a student in the at-risk category. If this behavior is not addressed early in a student’s life, it tends to produce future at-risk behaviors; not only for themselves as a perpetrator, but also for their victims and for the bystanders. Bullying can disrupt an entire school, community, and the well-being of various families by leaving permanent social and emotional scars on children’s lives. All individuals are affected – the victim, the perpetrator, and the bystanders (Brackett, Rivers, & Salovey, 2011).

The bullied child is susceptible to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. The perpetrator of the misconduct experiences feelings of hostility, anxiety, and depression, and subsequently later, substance use, abuse, and antisocial behavior. The bystanders watching the bullying taking place, experience feelings of hopelessness, insecurity, and thereafter symptoms of a traumatic experience (Brackett, Rivers, & Salovey, 2011).

According to UNICEF (2006), there are approximately two hundred and seventy-five million (275,000,000) children globally who are exposed to violent behaviors in their home. Children who are exposed to this kind of environment tend to be at-risk for becoming victims or perpetrators of abuse. Abuse also affects their physical, emotional, and social development. This is sometimes externalized through poor academic performance and achievement, poor school attendance, bullying, and other negative prosocial behaviors. At the core of bullying, substance use and abuse, domestic violence, poor academic performance and achievement, poor school attendance, and other negative social emotional behaviors are a lack of social emotional competencies (Bierman et al., 2003; CASEL, 2015b; Payton et al., 2000; Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013 ).

Social Emotional Learning

According to CASEL (as cited in Weissberg and Cascarino, 2013), social emotional learning (SEL) is the ability to obtain and effectively apply the “knowledge, attitudes, and skills 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” (p. 10). Social-emotional competence is as critical to children and youth’s intra- and interpersonal success as reading and math competences are to academic and career success. Weissberg and Cascarino (2013) discussed five social emotional competencies that aptly fit under three broad domains: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. The five SECs are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills.


Self-awareness is the ability to recognize accurately the way one’s thoughts and emotions influence behavior. This ability also allows an individual to identify and label their feelings and further identify and develop their strengths and positive qualities. This competency can be seen as foundational to the other four competencies (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013; Weissberg & O’Brien, 2004).


According to Weissberg and Cascarino (2013), self-management is the ability to control one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in various settings and situations. It also involves setting personal, social, career, and academic goals, and working towards them.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is other-awareness. It is the ability to identify and understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals and groups, whether they are similar or different from one’s own (Weissberg and O’Brien, 2004).

Relationship Skills

Relationship skills is the ability to create and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with various individuals and groups by communicating effectively, actively listening, working together, discussing conflict productively, and looking for and providing help when needed (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013).

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making is the ability to make proper and respectful choices about one’s behavior and social interactions based on one’s ethical standards. This involves the realistic evaluation of the consequences that could result from one’s actions, concerns of protection, and the well-being of oneself and others (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013).

Benefits of Acquiring Social Emotional Competencies

The acquisition of social emotional competencies has innumerable benefits to the individual regardless of their age, gender, geographic location, socioeconomic status, religious and sexual orientation, and educational background. Children and youth who present few protective factors and a higher number of risk factors can benefit from participating in programs that have, at their core, social emotional skills acquisition and training. For example, at the individual level, acquiring SECs helps to equip children and youth with empathy, self-awareness, and problem-solving skills. It allows them to be more focused and attentive in class, responsible, sympathetic, have a clearer life purpose, and to have a sense of contentment that positively influences self, others, and situations within the home, school, community, and future workplace (CASEL, 2015c; Jones & Bouffard, 2012; Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013; Zins & Weissberg, 2004).

Pasi (2001) noted that, “In a society where the importance of appreciating diversity, multiculturalism, and equity must be underscored, these students also learn to value differences and demonstrate increased sensitivity to the feelings of others” (p. 4). Durlak et al. (as cited by CASEL, 2015b) confirmed Pasi’s (2001) findings when they found that students who obtained quality social emotional education improved their attitudes, relationships, and beliefs regarding self, others, and situations.

Within the home setting, acquiring social emotional competencies equip children and youth with qualities such as kindness, peacefulness, respect, and openness (CASEL, 2015a; Fredericks, Weissberg, Resnik, Patrikakou, O’Brien, 2014). According to CASEL (as cited in Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013), social-emotional skills are important because they prepare children and youth to become productive citizens. These skills lead to improved work ethics and collaboration skills, enhanced work performance, and increased creativity and innovation.

The Payton et al. (2000) study posited that the social emotional learning framework could be used to direct a variety of research-based prevention programs that could target health, substance abuse, violence prevention, sexuality, character, and social skills within communities. In addition to this, social emotional learning frameworks can also provide positive engagement and cohesion within communities. According to Durlak et al. (as cited by CASEL, 2015b), within the school setting, the acquisition of social emotional competencies provides better adjustment and academic performance, which have been shown to improve attitudes and behaviors. These include a greater motivation to learn, an in-depth commitment to school, more time dedicated to schoolwork, and increased positive classroom behaviors.

The implementation of social emotional competencies has also shown fewer negative behavioral problems in children and youth (i.e. aggression, bullying, disruptive classroom behavior, delinquent behaviors, and ill-discipline) and less emotional pain (i.e. depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and stress). Furthermore, the acquisition of SECs has been shown to produce better grades and test scores in children and youth as well; those with SEL in a study scored a range of 11 percentile points on average more than students who did not acquire social emotional competencies (CASEL, 2015b).

According to Albright and Weissberg (2010), children and youth SECs are enhanced when they are reinforced at home and at school. Parents and teachers who display highly developed social emotional competence influence the manner in which they think about and interact with their children and students. When parents and teachers use similar strategies to promote the acquisition of SECs, the transition between home and school becomes more consistent and continuous. This increases the likelihood of improved intra- and interpersonal relationships between children and their parents, teachers, siblings, and peers. Research has supported the notion that school-family SEL programming positively impacts student success (Albright & Weissberg, 2010).

CASEL (2015a) reported that children who participate in comprehensive social and emotional learning programs characterized by safe, caring, and well-managed learning environments and instruction in social and emotional skills, tend to experience a reduction in risk factors and an increase in protective factors such as enhanced school attachments, increased academic achievement and performance, decreased behavioral referrals, decreased bullying reports, etc. This increase in protective factors creates a learning environment that promotes school attendance and, by extension, graduation rates (CASEL, 2015a).

In addition to the primary responsibility of providing academic and other cognitive skills to students, schools now have the added responsibility of prevention and intervention work in the areas of substance use, violence, bullying, truancy, and school dropout. CASEL reports that, when schools and students engage in multi-year, integrated approaches to a social emotional education, students and schools experience major gains across domains (CASEL, 2013). Engaging the home, the entire school community, and the community in which students live, learn, and love from as early as kindergarten until high school, yields positive benefits for all involved (CASEL, 2013, p. 9).

A study conducted with 324 low-income students and 112 kindergarten and first-grade teachers, found that there were significant effects of high-quality teacher-child relationships in kindergarten having future influences on math achievement in first grade (McCormick, O’Connor, Cappella & McClowry, 2013). These results were confirmed by McCormick, Cappella, O’Connor and McClowry (2015) in their study on the relationship between social emotional learning and academic achievement. They found that there were improvements in math achievement as well as emotional support among a similar population.

Jones and Bouffard (2012) studied the relationship between social emotional learning, mental health, and risky behaviors in children and youth. They found that many educators and parents realized that children who had strong social and emotional skills performed better academically, had healthier relationships with peers and adults, and were able to positively make emotional adjustments and experience mental health.

By teaching children and youth social emotional competencies, there are noticeable improvements in behaviors and academic performance and achievement (CASEL, 2005). Jones and Bouffard (2012) supported the findings of CASEL (2005) when they reported similar data from Illinois, USA, school leaders towards students at their school. They observed that the acquisition of social emotional competencies increased students’ performance levels at school, improved their learning environment, and increased attendance levels and graduation rates.


In conclusion, the acquisition of social emotional competencies is as critical to student success as are numeracy and literacy competencies. The acquisition of social emotional competencies is indisputably and inextricably central to the intra- and interpersonal success of children, youth, and adults across settings. In order for all of our societies to attain wholeness, all stakeholders must be fully engaged in the social emotional development of all children and youth, and those who influence and inspire them.


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