Let’s Put the Child Back Together — The Social, Emotional, Physical, and Cognitive Child

By Ellen Galinsky

Learning equals intellect.

Is this true? Increasingly, this seems to be the prevailing wisdom.

In 1990, the president and 50 state governors established National Education Goals. The first goal was notable in that it included children before school entry, stating “all children in America will start school ready to learn” by the year 2000. As time passed, “ready for school” became shorthand for fostering children’s literacy, which became shorthand for ensuring that children were ready to learn to read and write.

These national goals were accompanied by a call for educational accountability, which also became shorthand for many of the debates that swirl around us today — testing children on their competence in literacy and math — now a primary indicator of school and teacher success.

Partly in response to the over-emphasis on intellectual learning, a parallel movement gained momentum. It was a call for fostering children’s social-emotional development. It was a means of righting the over-emphasis on intellectual learning, but continues the unfortunate tendency for adults to see children’s learning as divided — it’s either social-emotional orintellectual.

In this either/or world, intellectual learning remains primary; in fact, social-emotional competencies are commonly called “soft skills” or elements of “character.”

If we simply watch children who are fully engaged in learning, it has never been clear to me which part of the learning is only cognitive, only social, or only emotional.

By 2000, this trend to divide children up was gaining steam, often to the detriment of children and their learning. Perhaps because I also work with business and know how important job engagement is to productivity, I wondered why we try to divide children up to focus on cognitive learning or social-emotional learning only to try to put them back to together to focus on full engagement when they are adults.

So when I conducted the research that led to Mind in the Making, I asked every researcher I interviewed to comment on the relationship of social-emotional learning to cognitive or intellectual learning. Again and again, the researchers saw them as inextricably connected. Here are some of their comments:

Larry Schweinhart of the HighScope Perry Preschool Project says:

We don’t have cognitive learning now, but no social learning and no emotional learning, and then have emotional learning later for a set period of time — they are all together.

Kurt Fischer of Harvard University says:

One of the most beneficial things that brain research has done is it’s made it very hard for us to split cognition from emotion. The areas of the brain most involved in memory — the quintessential cognitive function — are tied to the emotion areas.

Charles Nelson of Harvard University adds:

The field of child psychology has for years been broken up into its own little fiefdoms so that some study cognitive development and some study emotional development and social development and language development. And what’s unfortunate about that is that’s not how the brain works. The brain works as a unified system.

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington states:

The brain is an interdisciplinary device. You could think of language and cognition and social-emotional development as being totally separate, but that’s not what the baby provides evidence of.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University reiterates this point: neuroscience shows that “we can’t carve people up — there isn’t the cognitive person, the emotional person, the motivational person, the social person. All of these co-occur in the brain.”

Although there are times when learning is more cognitive than social or more emotional than cognitive, when children are fully engaged in learning, they are engaged on all these levels. And life skills — such as the ability to take the perspective of others, critical thinking, and self-control — involve these levels as well.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, the group originally convened by the National Academy of Sciences to review what we know about children’s development, concluded, “Cognitive, emotional and social capacities are inextricably interwined throughout the life course.”

So let’s use what we are learning from neuroscience and focus on the whole child — the social, emotional, cognitive and physical child.

This is a passionate call for engaging children in learning on all these equally important and interconnected levels.