Social and Emotional Learning

Why resilience, empathy, self-regulation, agency, and grit?

Thriving in the 21st century world requires a robust skill set. At SCE, we believe this toolkit includes social and emotional skills such as grit, resilience, empathy, self-regulation and agency. Through our most recent initiative, the Social and Emotional Learning Challenge, SCE and a group of partners will explore how teens are best supported in developing these skills and many others through informal out-of-school learning.

The SEL Challenge puts youth program practitioners in the driver’s seat of this exploration; we truly seek to learn alongside our partners and use the findings to guide smart investments in social and emotional interventions for youth.

At SCE, we know we don’t have all the answers. The five skills we identified are just a starting point for investigating the different tools that help youth manage healthy relationships, engage in their communities, plan for the future, and achieve personal success.

We also know that conceptual clarity and consensus around definitions of the various social and emotional skills continues to evade the field, reflecting the very personal and subjective nature of social and emotional growth itself. So how do we move forward in measuring (much less advancing) SEL if we aren’t all “speaking the same language”? We’re starting with the best information the field has about how young people thrive, and have partnered with an exceptionally talented research team to help us find definition where it matters most: in aligning measures across a cohort of stellar programs to uniformly track youth growth in particular social and emotional domains.

Our thinking on social and emotional learning has been greatly informed by the knowledge and expertise of thought leaders such as the author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman; grit researcher, Angela Duckworth; founder of the Ashoka Empathy Initiative, Bill Drayton; neuroscientist Richie Davidson; economist Jim Heckman and many others.

Below we share our understanding of the five social and emotional skills of particular interest to SCE, as defined by experts in the field:

Empathy is the ability to understand or sense what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response.[1] We use empathy when we take on others’ perspectives, or when we mirror what another person is feeling.

Self-regulation refers to one’s ability to control responses, impulses and behaviors in alignment with particular societal or circumstantial expectations, or personal goals.[2] This range of skills help us moderate emotional, mental or other stimulus, and are at work when we plan and think ahead, inhibit negative responses or delay gratification.[3]

Grit is defined asperseverance and passion for long term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, and maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”[4]

Resilience is a complex process of positive adjustment in the face of significant adversity. Resilience emerges when we call upon internal, interpersonal and external support systems in challenging times. [5]

Agency is the belief in our own ability to affect change in our lives. Agency provides us with the platform to rally our other skills in order to guide and direct our lives.[6]

Of course this is hardly an exhaustive list; after all, life success requires much more of us than mastery of these five skills alone. That is why we’ve approached the SEL Challenge as a way to gather practitioners and researchers around the same table, accept the limitations that conceptual ambiguity presents, and proceed toward discovering concrete practices that promise to put more youth on the path to success.

We appreciate your comments, questions, and feedback! We encourage you to comment on this post if you want to learn more about our process, perspectives, or approach to the SEL Challenge. We hope that you stay tuned as we embark on this collaborative and exploratory journey!

[2] Informed by the UCHICAGO CCSR literature review Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners

[3] Child Trends, a youth outcomes focused research center, describes self-regulation in this brief on assessing self-regulation

[4] Direct quote from Angela Duckworth et al. in Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

[5] We favor resilience researcher Ann Masten’s concept of resilience as “Ordinary Magic,” and researcher

Dante Ciccheti’s focus on resilience as a process rather than a trait in the research paper The Construct of Resilience: A Critical Evaluation and Guidelines for Future Work

[6] Albert Bandura’s work as one of the foremost researchers of agency and self-efficacy influenced this concept of agency. Its importance for teens is documented by many including Reed Larson and colleagues in the report Adolescents’ development of skills for agency in youth programs