Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

The New Literacy

There is a natural by-product of well-developed social and emotional skills in young people — they become leaders.

People in silhouette
Photo by Papaioannou Kostas / Unsplash
Update: The ideas in this article form the central theme of a book I finished in April 2023! You can get a copy of my book, "Ready for Real Life" by clicking here.

If you’ve been around the world of secondary education, you’ve heard a storm of hype surrounding a term called Social Emotional Learning or “SEL” for short. SEL is a series of competencies turned curriculum that is beginning to be required by states, districts, and schools around the country. The storm of interest comes from three sources: changes in the makeup of today’s students, pressure from major places of work in the US who feel newly minted graduates are socially and emotionally unready for the workforce, and (perhaps most importantly) a flood of research and data showing that building SEL skills can transform a young person’s life.

Social and Emotional Learning got its start with Howard Gardener, a developmental psychologist, who first proposed that there are other kinds of intelligence beyond just the metric we call “IQ.” Instead, he suggested that there were eight different types of intelligence. The transformation of these ideas from theory to practice happened when two of these intelligences, intrapersonal and interpersonal, were found in a series of studies to correlate with success — particularly in the workplace. It was at this point that almost everyone started hearing about these ideas thanks to a man named Daniel Goleman. Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” (1995) was an instant success. His theory was simple: a person who possessed the four basic social and emotional traits would be far more likely to succeed than a much smarter person would be without these same traits. Here are the four:

  1. Self Awareness
  2. Self Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Management

The first two are aspects of intrapersonal intelligence as Gardener originally outlined. The second clearly fits into Gardener’s category of interpersonal intelligence. Since Gardener’s theory and Goleman’s book, much research has been done connecting these traits along with a newer one called “responsible decision making” with success in work and in life. The way I like to think about it is simple. Think about a young person you know who has surprised you with their maturity, social aptitude, or emotional grounding. I believe what is happening is that this young person (or anyone really) with well-developed social and emotional skills possess a secondary type of literacy. I think you’ll find that the following three characteristics aptly describe them:

“Read Yourself, Read Others, Read the Air.”

Read Yourself

This simply means that I can name how I am feeling. I understand my personality and the basic traits that define my behavior. I am rarely surprised by my emotional reaction to a situation.

Read Others

I am relaxed in personal interactions. I can read the expressions of others fluidly and can guess how they are feeling. Once I get to know them, I am able to clearly communicate with them.

Read the Air

I am adept in social situations. I can feel the emotions of the room and know how I could act to shape those emotions. I also understand how power dynamics, historical dynamics, and social dynamics at play may shape others' thoughts and behavior.

As important as learning to read ourselves, others and the air is to students' lives, it’s actually just the beginning. One of the dangerous flaws in our approach to social and emotional learning is that it is often limited to ourselves. We develop these skills in students so they can come across better in job interviews or choose more effective language when giving a speech in class. While I am a believer in the importance of both personal growth and development, I cannot believe that we only develop these social and emotional skills for the sake of personal growth. Social and emotional skills are FOR something else — or rather, someone else.

I believe, at their core, social and emotional skills prepare each of us to make an impact on the world around us. This is why I want to suggest a model for how to think about the purpose and process of SEL.


At the core of the argument for my book is a belief about the way students learn important non-academic skills they will need to thrive in life. You'll remember that the development of cassava is a practice passed down from generation to generation by way of watching and practicing unto habit. In the same way, today’s young people can only learn the social and emotional skills they will need when they are first engaged intentionally in these practices by a trusted adult mentor.

This practice can be easily explained in today’s social and emotional learning vernacular. Let’s take what we’ve learned so far and lay it out in a succinct way. Putting it together like this:

The SEL(3) Model

Social Emotional Learning

The process starts with social and emotional learning. Learning means that leaders, teachers, parents, and coaches are all coming together in an intentional intervention designed to teach these skills to the next generation. This will certainly mean curricula and programs, but it must also mean one-on-one mentoring relationships, locker room inspirational speeches, and conversations around the dinner table.

Social Emotional Literacy

As a student engages in social and emotional learning they naturally begin to develop their social and emotional literacy. As discussed earlier, this literacy gives them a greater influence over themselves, others, and the world around them. They can “read” in a whole new way.

Social Emotional Leadership

The first two stages of this model may seem pretty straightforward, while this next part may not. I believe the increase of social and emotional literacy in a student’s life naturally leads them to have more of an impact on the world around them. Social and emotional skills are not for us. These skills are intended to help us better lead the world around us. At Growing Leaders, we shorten this to a simple phrase: “Solving Problems, Serving People.” Solving problems and serving people are natural by-products of well-developed social and emotional skills in young people — they become leaders.

There is a reason why the young people who lead student organizations and take on extra responsibilities are often the most poised, socially adept, and interpersonally gifted. Their well-developed SEL skills have empowered them. The new literacy they possess has also given them the desire to make the world around them a better place.

We’ve been playing around with a term around the office that I want to share with you now. I think, given all that I’ve said up to this point, you can see why I think this phrase is true.

“SEL makes your life better and makes you better at life.”

I’d love to see a whole generation of young people who are experiencing the benefits of these skills because, once they do, I expect that they will take those gifts and use them to make a better world.


Subscribe to Andrew McPeak

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson