Delivering the Social-Emotional element of Student Personal Development

Social-Emotional Learning can – and arguably should – be delivered in many different ways. Integrating it into the whole school culture over time will achieve the best, long-lasting positive impact for students, teachers and leadership. This could involve any or all of dedicated, blended, remote, integrated, independent, tutoring, or coaching approaches. In this article, Pete Read and Dr Leila Khouja Walker, creators of the online Social-Emotional Learning platform Persona Life Skills, offer advice for schools and colleges on different ways this critical element of student Personal Development can be delivered.


By Pete Read (CEO & Co-founder) and Dr Leila Khouja Walker (CPO & Co-founder), Persona Education


Beyond academic learning

UNESCO defines Social-Emotional Learning as:


“...ways to recognize emotions and to maintain positive relationships in developing sympathy and empathy. It involves the acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes that learners need to create positive relationships, build resilience, handle challenging situations, make appropriate decisions and care for others.” (UNESCO 2022)


The impact evidence for Social-Emotional Learning in schools and colleges has been around for decades. Despite this, it is yet to become an education mainstay. 

There is robust evidence from independent research pointing to a positive correlation between investing time and resources in well-developed Social-Emotional Learning, and improved, measurable academic and non-academic outcomes.

A meta-analysis of a wide body of existing research, conducted by Public Health England (Public Health England 2014) concluded:

  • A 10-20% boost in results is attributable to Social-Emotional Learning
  • School-based Social-Emotional Learning programmes benefit pupils’ wellbeing

Meanwhile, employers continue to cry out for socially-emotionally skilled candidates. Most think that Gen Z lacks the life skills needed for success at work.

In a Dec-23 survey of 800 managers, directors and executives in the United States, 58% said recent graduates are unprepared for the workforce. (Intelligent 2023)

In May-23 the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report identified top skills for the workplace. Nine out of the top ten were Social-Emotional Skills. (World Economic Forum 2023). And Major Pearson research identifies “human skills” as most in demand in the world’s job markets. (Pearson 2022)

  • Collaboration
  • Customer focus
  • Personal learning and mastery
  • Achievement focus
  • Cultural and social intelligence


Dedicated sessions in the curriculum


Worldwide, many schools timetable weekly or fortnightly sessions to address Personal Development, and social, health and citizenship education. 

In England and Wales this is usually delivered as a combination of PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) and Citizenship education. 

Equivalents in other curricula may be known as:

  • Wellbeing
  • Personal Development
  • Character Education
  • Life Skills
  • Advisory
  • Spiritual, Moral, Social & Cultural (SMSC)

Although often a non-examined part of the curriculum, it is increasingly being seen as important, with school inspectors keen to see how schools and colleges are supporting students in their transition from child through to adolescent and young adult.


Case: Tanglin Trust School in Singapore is a high achieving school in terms of academic attainment. The provision of a dedicated life skills curriculum alongside traditional subject lessons is perhaps no coincidence. The school has recruited ‘Lifeskills’ practitioners to develop and deliver a programme embedded into the curriculum. It is given a significant timetable and also the necessary resources to deliver as highly as any other subject.


Cross-curricular learning


The delivery of Social-Emotional Learning does not need to be sidelined with a small group of teachers or even specialists who have an interest in the area. 

Rather it is, and should be, core to any teaching practice, as these skills enable students to thrive, both in their learning and in their wider lives. In fact, these same skills enable teachers to thrive also, in classrooms and working alongside colleagues to support the school community.

A growing number of schools and colleges have embedded these Social-Emotional Skills, often within their mission statement or values, as desirable ‘character’ traits for their community. This raises an expectation that teachers, in every classroom, overtly support the development of these skills, alongside their subject area. 

Explicit strategies can help to provide structure and make this easier for teachers. For example, setting one or two social-emotional learning intentions at the start of every lesson, promoting peer-to-peer learning, providing problem-solving ideas, encouraging a growth mindset, and so on.


Case: West Suffolk College in the UK is one such example. They believe that a focus on eight character strengths – Resilience, Curiosity, Ownership, Self-control, Optimism, Ambition, Respect and Confidence – will foster a culture in which students can become independent thinkers, who are confident in their choices and actions, and ready for the workplace.


Tutor time


Historically, tutor time has been seen as the ‘mopping-up’ part of the timetable. A 10 or even 20 or 30 minute check-in, daily or several times a week, with a group of students and a teacher responsible for their pastoral care. It is not uncommon to see students not given anything to focus on, whilst the teacher attempts to sort out one individual’s needs. 

With curriculum time at such a premium, schools and colleges are trying to use this time to support students’ pastoral needs, which is laudable – but it is also a huge wasted opportunity, because in many cases this could be done in a much more planned, considered and productive manner.


Case: Parkwood Academy, a school for 11-16 year-olds in Sheffield (UK), is one example of a school making more constructive use of tutor time. Tutors provide all students with structured online activities supporting their social-emotional development, whilst still available to provide one-to-one pastoral support.


Collapsed timetable


To create a real awareness, focus, and one-time impact, and perhaps sow the seeds for further activity, collapsing the timetable in a ‘drop-down’ day or half day, is another option.

This is especially useful for a school that needs to ‘kick-start’ a greater emphasis on Personal Development and Social-Emotional Learning. 


Case: At the international school group Cognita, schools focus on wellbeing throughout the year, and synchronised on a dedicated ‘Be Well Day’, they all collapse the curriculum in order to focus on wellbeing as a global family. The day acts as an annual reminder of the priority Cognita places upon equipping young people with Social-Emotional Skills that prepare them to grow, thrive and succeed in a fast-changing world.


Independent learning time

Independent learning time.

Supporting student agency is a key indicator of future student success. Makes sense, doesn’t it? The more students are able to think independently and work through their learning, the better prepared for higher education and the workplace they will be. 

Independent learning time for Social-Emotional Skills can be provided within school hours (in and out of the classroom) as well as after school. Giving students the opportunity to take a task or project and decide how they wish to go about it, requires teachers to let go of their traditional role as the provider of all knowledge and the conductor of all tasks.


Case: At Sexey’s state-funded boarding school in the UK, Social-Emotional Learning is implemented as part of the weekly ‘prep’ (homework) programme. A set allocated period of time every evening means the activity is more likely to be done. The Director of Boarding says that giving students leadership in this way is a real benefit.




When a teacher or more experienced peer helps a student to identify and work on a specific personal goal or development area, the results can be game-changing. 

Lessons are of course blocks of time where the teacher engages with all, some and at times one student. When teachers plan lessons, they will often mark out on the plan the type of activity, eg. group work or in pairs or whole class. However, space is often left for supporting individuals who may need additional help. 

If the teacher sees themselves as a ‘coach’, they can carve out perhaps 5-10 mins in a lesson to focus on an individual and check in on their personal development. Then, timetable other students across the term or even the academic year – two or three times a year. This requires good time management skills by the teacher – but the results are worth it. 

In a peer-to-peer coaching model, the teacher simply needs to give structure to how pairs of peers may agree on a focus for development, choose from a list of activities to focus on for a set amount of time (days/weeks) and agree what success looks like. The teacher’s role here is then to monitor rather than to coach.


The future is hybrid!


During school closures during the COVID-19 lockdowns, many reported an increase in student agency, by default, as teachers were unable to have the same level of control on how and when students carried out their learning. 

So schools and colleges should not return to this ‘controlling’ model that stifles student agency, but instead offer a hybrid or blended approach when it comes to delivering Social-Emotional Learning. 

Give students the opportunity to choose more often when and how they will carry out a task. Be more flexible in your timetable to those students who are already showing a good level of agency – providing them with independent spaces to complete such tasks or activities. 

These same students can then act as role-models for their peers, who by the very nature of their adolescence are screaming out for more independence.


A version of this article was first published in RISE Magazine


Persona Education offers free trial access to its Persona Life Skills e-learning platform for secondary schools and colleges interested in developing their pupils’ social & emotional life skills, proven to boost wellbeing, academic and employability outcomes. 

About the authors:

Pete Read co-founded Persona Education in 2019 to bring the benefits of personality insights to young people. Before founding Persona, Pete built several consulting and software companies in Europe and Asia, one of which was rated the no.1 consulting company to work for in Asia-Pacific by, winning best-in-class on diversity, gender equality and LGBTQ+ equality.

Dr Leila Khouja Walker has been working in the education sector for 25 years. An ex-teacher and pastoral deputy head, she is now a respected edtech and pedagogy thought leader, leading development of the personality insights powered personal development platform Persona Life Skills, at the Bristol based edtech company Persona Education Ltd.

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