Socio-emotional education at school and the challenge of improving children’s mental health


13% of children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 have a diagnosed mental disorder, according to the UNICEF report on the state of the world’s children . This report also points out that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15 to 19 years.

In Spain, anxiety, depression , suicidal ideation, self-harm, eating disorders, technology abuse and early consumption of pornography reached record numbers during the pandemic .

In Latin American and Caribbean countries there are also figures similar to those cited by UNICEF.

The role of the school

Schools are essential for the development of social-emotional knowledge and skills, such as self-regulation, resilience and critical thinking, because they lay the foundation for a healthy future.

The White Paper on Child and Adolescent Mental Health of the General Council of Psychology of Spain also points out the importance of preventive actions from the school context.

It is an excellent framework to promote skills, prevent difficulties and identify problems early. It is a miniature society where, in addition to academic activities, important social experiences take place in relationships with teachers and with peers.

Educate hearts and relationships

At school, great importance is still given to classical intellectual aspects (abstract reasoning, memory) and academic performance. But integral education implies educating not only heads, but also hearts and relationships, for the following reasons:

  • The teaching-learning process is largely interpersonal and a good emotional and social climate is needed to teach and learn.
  • Learning involves cognitive, emotional and social processes.
  • Emotional intelligence is a predictor of academic performance and school success .
  • Emotions are involved in cognitive aspects (attention, memory, reasoning, decision making), in behaviors (what I do and say), in interpersonal bonds (with whom I relate), in physical health (psychosomatic problems) and in mental health.
  • It is a powerful tool for improving coexistence and preventing violence.

However, emotions and relationships are often off the intentional and systematic curriculum.

Social-emotional education in the curriculum

Socio- emotional education works on socio-emotional skills and addresses content such as: communication and dialogue, empathy, assertiveness, prosociality, managing one’s own and others’ emotions (identifying, understanding, expressing, regulating), peaceful conflict resolution, resilience and coping with complex interpersonal situations.

It uses an active and participatory methodology with a set of behavioral, cognitive, group dynamization and values ​​education techniques and strategies, to facilitate the implementation, maintenance and generalization of the behaviors that are worked on.

It does so with structured and periodic sessions in the reference classroom, and also with transversal activities inserted in the different areas of the curriculum and school activities. In addition, generalization and transfer activities are included to apply what has been learned outside the classroom context.

This work must be planned and systematic with clear objectives. It is a rigorous and prolonged training throughout schooling, in which the educational community and families must be involved. The optimal result is a welcoming, inclusive school that fosters well-being and positive and satisfying bonds and relationships between students, families and teachers.

The challenges

The educational system needs to change its paradigm so that it includes, in addition to the acquisition of knowledge, the promotion of skills and abilities for life, well-being, mental health and resilience.

It is necessary to optimize the valuable activities and programs that are developed in the centers, both in the subjects and in tutoring issues, coexistence programs, reception, equality, diversity, enriching recreation, etc., transversally incorporating socio-emotional strategies and activities.

And all this in close collaboration with families through tutorials, talks, workshops and emotional homework.

Some examples

In Spain there is a growing interest. There are university research groups such as the Laboratory of Emotions (University of Malaga), the Laboratory of Studies on Coexistence and Prevention of Violence (University of Córdoba) or the Psychopedagogical Orientation Research Group (University of Barcelona).

Various prevention and intervention programs have been developed on issues of emotional intelligence, social skills, coexistence and bullying with stimulating results and good reception by teachers, such as: PEHIS , PAHS , INTEMO and CYBERPROGRAM 2.0 .

There are other experiences such as the Responsible Education Program of the Botín Foundation that also work on these contents. Countries such as Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador participate in it.

Teacher training: pending subject

Teachers directly involved in these activities are expected to have an adequate socio-emotional profile, good communication skills, manage emotions well and be competent in the behaviors they are going to teach.

However, initial training in these subjects at universities is usually insufficient and inadequate (it is still theoretical!), so it will be necessary to emphasize permanent training. If we consider that teaching is a profession with a risk of stress, burnout and anxiety, this continuous training in socio-emotional skills can contribute to the well-being and satisfaction of teachers.

What institutions do

“Despite everything, governments and societies are not allocating enough resources to promote, protect and care for the mental health of children, young people and their caregivers.”

The State of the World’s Children Report 2021, UNICEF .
We point out some aspects to develop:

  1. Improve the theoretical and practical training of teachers and other educational professionals. For example, the State School Council, in coordination with the autonomous communities, has recently held a webinar on emotional education .
  2. Encouraging innovation by promoting practical experiences and stimulating research by favoring the rapprochement of the school world and the university world. There are interesting proposals in the centers that need to be contrasted and receive scientific support.
  3. Increase specialized personal resources, psychopedagogical teams, counselors, with a greater presence of psychologists in the centers . The Community of Madrid has just announced the creation of a multidisciplinary team to prevent and improve socio-emotional care in schools and institutes.
  4. Incorporate socio-emotional issues in official documents and in legislation, where lack of attention to emotional education is appreciated

The LOMLOE considers the “personal, social and learning to learn competence” one of the key competences with which we must provide schoolchildren and future citizens. To achieve this, socio-emotional education cannot be left out of the school curriculum once again.

Hopefully, in the specific development of the LOMLOE, it will be decidedly incorporated as a powerful strategy for well-being, prevention and promotion of mental health from childhood.

Author Bio: Ines Nuns Casares is Honorary collaborating professor in the Department of Psychology and researcher on Educational Psychology at the University of Valladolid