Erica Frydenberg

Importance of social and emotional competence for teachers, for very young children and for at-risk students: latest research

Teachers and researchers are increasingly aware of the importance of social and emotional competence in the classroom and beyond, including for health, education, and employment outcomes into adulthood. Social and emotional competence refers to the skills that help us to interact in positive ways with others and manage our own emotions. These skills are varied and include among others our relationships skills, confidence, coping skills, self-regulation and self-awareness.

Curriculum designed to teach social and emotional competence is known as social and emotional learning. The Australian Curriculum Frameworks emphasise the importance of social and emotional learning from the early years and throughout schooling.

A growing body of research has investigated the importance of social and emotional competence for students and there are promising results for social and emotional learning programs already being used in schools in Australia and abroad. Resources are available for Australian teachers to implement social and emotional learning in their classrooms.

In this blog post we will focus on our recent research work in three areas of social and emotional competence that we believe need more attention: the importance of social and emotional competence in the early years of schooling, for at-risk students, and for teachers.

Developing Social Emotional Competence in the Early Years

During the early preschool years, children are beginning to learn more about social emotional competencies such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and social awareness. Nurturing these skills is important for positive developmental outcomes and there is now a growing body of research seeking effective ways to do so.

For example, in one of our studies Investigating Social and Emotional Competence in the Early Years, among children in the four-year-old age group we identified a range of coping social and emotional competencies that young children could implement when faced with challenge or things that worried them. It was then possible to develop visual tools to teach age-appropriate coping social and emotional competencies to children in the pre-school setting such as for situations like saying goodbye to a parent at pre-school and fear of the dark.

It was also possible to identify adaptive and maladaptive social and emotional competencies that seemed to be especially salient in young children’s coping.

Adaptive behaviours are those that help a child adjust to and cope with different situations in their environment, such as at home and at school. So adaptive social and emotional competencies are a set of behaviours that a child would use to help them adjust and cope. Maladaptive behaviours are those that interfere with everyday activities and a child’s ability to cope. So maladaptive social and emotional competencies are a set of behaviours a child would use that interrupt or interfere with everyday activities.

  • In the adaptive dimension children used strategies such as “Play”, “Chat to Friends” and “Work Hard”.
  • In the maladaptive dimension children used strategies considered to be more distressing for the child or caregiver. These included an emotional expression dimension that reflected emotions such as “Lose it”, “Cry or scream”, and “Keep away from other children”. They also included an emotional inhibition dimension that reflected internalised emotions such as “Keep feelings to self”, “Get sick”, and “Don’t let others know how they are feeling”.

It was clear that those who used adaptive coping social and emotional competencies also experienced positive mental health and there was a link between maladaptive social and emotional competencies and some aspects of poor mental health. For example, maladaptive coping social and emotional competencies were linked to anxiety, peer related difficulties, and conduct problems.

Intervention research, research that is designed to assess the efficacy of a particular intervention, has also identified ways to teach adaptive social and emotional competencies such as coping. For example, a five-week early years coping program, COPE-R (COPE-Resilience), was designed to teach social and emotional competencies such as caring for others, communicating openly, politeness, empathy, and sharing in classroom activities.

In our study we found that:

  • children as young as four can articulate a range of coping strategies;
  • children’s social and emotional competencies can be measured through parent reports;
  • children can be taught to use more positive coping skills and fewer negative coping skills; and,
  • social and emotional learning programs of instruction can be utilised to teach both personal coping skills and prosocial skills.

The Role of Social and Emotional Competence in At-risk Students’ Academic Wellbeing 

The bulk of research into social and emotional competence has focused on so-called “mainstream” student populations (e.g., using whole-class samples, whole-school samples, national and international samples). As noted above, social and emotional competence is associated with important personal and academic wellbeing outcomes for these students. Relatively less attention has been directed to social and emotional competence among ‘at-risk’ groups. These are groups of students who are at risk of dropping out of school or experiencing difficulties in their lives as they grow and develop (such as students with ADHD or learning difficulties).

Our research program’s focus on “at-risk” status has examined students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In one of our recent studies, ADHD Personal and Interpersonal Agency, and Achievement: Exploring Links from a Social Cognitive Theory Perspective, we investigated social and emotional competencies for students with ADHD. We found that self-efficacy, that is the child’s confidence in their own ability to succeed, and positive interpersonal relationships with teachers were significantly associated with academic outcomes.

Notably, we also found that these two factors played a far more substantial role in academic wellbeing for students with ADHD than for students without ADHD. On the one hand, this was quite an encouraging finding in that it identified specific ways to help improve the academic wellbeing of students with ADHD. On the other hand, however, the finding was of some concern because students with ADHD are typically lower in self-efficacy and have poorer interpersonal relationships, leading to lower academic wellbeing. Taking both together, we identified a clear need to improve these social and emotional competencies among students with ADHD.

For improving students’ academic self-efficacy, we suggested that teachers:

  • Adapt lessons and activities to maximise opportunities for students’ success—with this success being a basis for building self-efficacy
  • Break lessons and activities into smaller, more manageable sections to optimise opportunities for completion and a sense of competence
  • Individualise instruction and learning activities where appropriate and necessary
  • Develop students’ goal-setting skills that allows students to work towards competence experiences

For improving teacher-student relationships, we suggested that teachers:

  • Implement the “connective instruction” framework that seeks to optimise students’ interpersonal connection with teachers (students better connecting with the teacher him/herself), the substantive connection with teachers (students better connecting to the subject matter and academic tasks and activities), and the pedagogical connection with teachers (students connecting to how the teacher communicates and delivers subject matter)
  • Build students’ awareness of social cues through social skills training
  • Be more patient and tolerant of differences and diversity in the classroom
  • Participate in professional development aimed at assisting at-risk students and their relationships with these students

Social and Emotional Competence and Teachers

Thus far we have focused on promoting social and emotional competencies among students. Alongside attention to students’ social and emotional competencies, we argue that teachers’ social and emotional competence is also crucial. This is because:

Given that social and emotional competence is highly relevant to teachers’ work, what does this mean for schools and teachers?

  • At an individual-level, professional development focused on teachers’ social and emotional competence is an avenue that is gaining support for improving teachers’ wellbeing and their ability to create a more positive and supportive classroom environment. For example, mindfulness-based professional development programs involve training in emotional skills (e.g., role plays to help teachers to recognise and be aware of their emotions), mindfulness (e.g., deliberate practice of present moment awareness), and caring and compassion (e.g., mindful listening to others without judgement).
  • At a school-wide level, it is also important to create an environment where teachers’ social and emotional competence is supported. This lays a foundation for teachers’ own wellbeing and in turn their students’ learning. 

The burgeoning awareness of the importance of social and emotional competence for children is having an effect in our schools, helping our children thrive in their classrooms and beyond. To date, most of this attention has focused on mainstream students. We believe our research and work focusing attention on young children, at-risk students, and teachers, for whom additional attention is important, will further promote positive and healthy individuals and schools.


The research cited here is in an edited volume by Erica Frydenberg, Andrew Martin and Rebecca Collie, Social and Emotional Learning in Australia and the Asia-Pacific, published by Springer Nature in Singapore in 2017 and to be launched today, Wednesday 29th July, at the 2017 Australian Association for Research in Education Conference in Canberra. The authors will be participating in a symposium after the launch.


Rebecca Collie, B.Ed. (Hons), M.A., Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Educational and Developmental Psychology at the University of NSW. Her research interests focus on motivation and well-being among students and teachers, teachers’; and students’; psychosocial experiences at school (perceptions of school climate, job satisfaction, etc.), and quantitative research methods. Through her research, Rebecca aims to promote positive work environments and experiences among teachers as well as engagement and learning among students. She conducted her master’s and doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and her undergraduate education at the University of Melbourne. She has also worked as a primary school teacher in Melbourne. For more about Rebecca’s publications visit here.


Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co- Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.




Erica Frydenberg is an educational, clinical and organizational psychologist who has practiced extensively in the Australian educational setting. She is a Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor in psychology in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society. Erica has authored and co-authored over 150 academic journal articles and chapters in the field of coping, developed psychological instruments to measure coping in children, adolescents and adults and authored and co-authored 15 books on topics ranging from early years through to adolescence and parenting. She has received numerous Australian Research Council and philanthropic grants, has been engaged widely as a consultant and has received many awards. For more about Erica visit her website.

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