Skip to main content

The jingle jangle jungle of social and emotional learning

Sung to the tune of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off":

You say non-cognitive and I say socio-emotional,
You say initiative and I say self-direction,
Engagement, motivation,
Problem solving, critical thinking,
Let's call the whole thing off!

To be successful in school now and ready for college and careers later, young people need to develop a range of skills variously referred to as social-emotional, non-cognitive, soft or 21st century skills. In this basket of skills, you may think of self-confidence, perseverance, empathy, teamwork or critical thinking. There is increasing evidence that these skills are critical to success, but little agreement about how to label and measure them.

We have different terms for similar concepts, such as initiative and self-direction. We use the same term, like engagement, to mean different things, like motivation and participation. A recent report reminds us that "21st century skills" have been valuable for centuries. Another report laments the false dichotomy between academic "cognitive" factors and softer "non-cognitive" skills. Dr. Charles Smith, executive director of the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, referred to this terminological morass as a "jingle jangle jungle". But rather than call the whole thing off, let's get past labels and start to build shared understanding.

Here at the Extension Center for Youth Development, the Howland Endowment sponsors an endowed chair and a learning series designed to bridge research and practice around critical youth development issues. As part of the larger University and Extension efforts to address Minnesota's achievement and opportunity gaps, the next three-year series is dedicated to understanding social and emotional learning. The goals are enhanced understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning, increased consensus around common language and measures, and increased efforts to promote, assess, and support social and emotional learning in youth development programs.

On October 30, Dr. Roger Weissberg will present the first in this series of symposia, "Social and Emotional Learning: From research to strategies." Weissberg is president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an international organization committed to making social and emotional learning an essential part of education.

Weissberg will share a rationale for making social and emotional learning an educational priority in the United States. He will describe recent research and proven strategies of how families, schools and communities are strengthening social and emotional skills as an essential part of every young person's learning and development. You can register for this event now and attend online or in person.

Which terms from the "jingle jangle jungle" resonate for you, and why? If you could focus on helping young people develop just one of these skills, which would you choose? (See how others answered this question when the Search Institute posed it in the Soft Skills Prioritization Poll.)

What is one thing (an action, a resource) that you hope would result from a multi-year focus on social and emotional learning?

-- Kate Walker, Assistant Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc. -- as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. I'm delighted to be part of Howland efforts to not "Call the whole thing off" with respect to social and emotional factors that affect learning and development. We can not just "Let it Be" we need to actively search for "The eye of the tiger" -- a way to talk about these important factors that enable action.
    The notion that these factors represents a "jungle" particularly resonates with me in two ways. First, the field is growing rapidly and is a bit out of control -- like a jungle. Second, it is a field rich with resources that can be brought to bear in sustainable ways to help young people succeed. It is this untapped potential that appeals to me most perhaps.
    Thanks for the song Kate and for starting off the blog series in this area.

  2. Thanks for your note, Dale, and for your leadership in moving this issue here in Minnesota.
    Related to this “ jingle jangle jungle” of terms, in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine there was an article titled, “Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?” It includes this quote by Marc Brackett: " ‘Mindful eating’ is social-emotional learning, according to some people. It’s a mess. Everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon.” And another quote by David Caruso: “It’s a big messy field, with a lot of promises, but very little data. Right now I think people are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.” Both quotes underscore the need to dig in and build shared understanding of what social and emotional learning is, how to measure it and how to enhance it!

  3. Kate, thanks so much for your blog (and sorry I am late in replying to it). This is a critical and timely issue for all of us who care about young people. As research emerges in a wider range of sectors on the connections between social-emotional learning and achievement/"success" in various sectors (which are other terms that we could unpack), the stakes for this conversation get higher. I do come back to a line in the NYT article you cite--"What kind of world do we want?" I personally think that as we talk about SEL, we are not only talking about educational outcomes or employment rates or even health. I think what we are talking about it reinvigorating our own culture in the U.S., since it really requires us as adults to also be working on our own resilience, perseverance, ability to manage conflict, etc. So I hope that as we think about this topic over the next three years, we build in opportunities for youth workers and educators to be reflective about 1) what matters in the realm of SEL; 2) how we can instill that in youth; and 3) how we can embody those skills, so they are learning in an environment, in a culture that supports their SEL development..

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kathryn. Your question of what kind of world we want reminds me—on a lighter note—of the clip of comedian Louis C.K. that recently went viral ( In it he explains that he doesn't allow his daughters to have smartphone because they get in the way of building empathy and managing emotions. I don’t totally agree, but it does get at the questions of what kind of society do we want to be, how do we want to relate to one another and the world around us, and how are we modeling that for our children?

  5. Nice post Kate! I had not seen the Search Institute poll so thank you.
    As I look at the SI poll, it reminds me that way back in the day we used to call it "psycho-social" development and then "social-emotional" and so on. And as I look at the SI poll and many others that measure "non-academic" outcomes they often are much more oriented toward the psychological end than the social. However when I think about 21st Century learning skills and what employers need and want (and thus what people need to get and keep jobs), it seems to me we're talking about socially acceptable behaviors like being courteous, on time, wearing appropriate clothes, getting along with co-workers, writing well, and working in teams/groups well.
    I realize that you need both psychological and emotional well-being, and good social skills--it's not one or the other. I wonder if one leads to the other? You might think that strong emotional wellness is a prerequisite for good social skills. But I think that what got me through jr. and sr. high was that I had great social skills (I talked up in class, I had good manners) even though I skipped school a lot. Go figure!

  6. Thanks for your comments, Beki! Indeed there are lots of different labels for these competencies, and it seems to vary by discipline as well as across decades! I don’t know why socio-emotional has eclipsed psycho-social. How does intra- and interpersonal sit with you? Understanding yourself and relating to others; understanding and managing your own emotions and those of others? And really Beki, given that all these skills are associated with adult success, I’m sure you were self-aware and could regulate your emotions in addition to displaying those social skills and maintaining those positive relationships when you were younger! :-) 

  7. HA! I still haven't managed to regulate my emotions! All my previous co-workers are thinking, "Boy, that's for sure!" ;)


Post a Comment