Social emotional competence, emotional intelligence and the prosocial school leader

How the pandemic, school closures and distance learning can guide leaders

By Oscar Macias | September | October 2020
Originally, I wanted to write and research about the competence levels of principals as it relates to social emotional learning and the leadership necessary to implement such programs effectively to create positive school climates. However, this pandemic and subsequent school closures and distance learning guided me in a new direction. My research led me to the concept of Social Emotional Competence and emotional intelligence as it pertains in general to school site leadership. Here are my guiding questions: How can site principals develop their emotional intelligence to contend with high levels of stress and lead more effectively? Where can school site leaders turn to for help when in need? I was inspired to reflect after reading “Principals’ Social and Emotional Competence: A Key Factor for Creating Caring Schools” (Mahfouz, Greenberg and Rodriguez, 2019). The Covid-19 pandemic brought to the surface another example of the type of substantial job-related stress school principals can experience. It has also exposed a gap that exists for guidance and professional resources for school principals to fully develop our own social and emotional competencies.  When it comes to the impact of mental health on academic outcomes, the research is clear on the direct positive nexus in developing social-emotional competence and its key to success and in life (Elias, O’Brien and Weissberg, 2006). According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2003), SEL addresses the development of five key areas of SEC: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. These five key areas can increase a school principal’s effectiveness and development of the skills to lead the implementation of SEL programs, policies, and a positive school climate (Elias, O’Brien, and Weissber, 2006).  A new leadership model that I have looked at and plan on utilizing is the conceptual model of the prosocial school leader. This model results from the work of Mahfouz, Greenberg, Weissber, Chi, & Turksma and deserves the fullest attention from all school and district leaders.  The prosocial leader has a clear foundation and focus on the school principal’s own SEC and the ability to handle and cope with job-related stress. This model also emphasizes the need for a school principal to model positive behaviors, both social and cultural, with all faculty, staff and learners (Mahfouz, Greenberg, & Rodriguez, 2019). The other key area of focus for a prosocial school leader is the direct correlation between effective leadership, effective SEL implementation and the creation of a healthy school climate. As the model shows, all roads lead to positive social emotional and academic outcomes. I have an affinity for theories, practices, and models of school leadership. We all have been exposed by either our own academic experiences or through professional mentoring, leadership forms such as transformational and service leadership. We also most likely know about Bolman and Deal’s (1984, 1991) four perspectives, or frames, for understanding organizations and leadership: structural, human resource, political, and symbolic. Still, there is no formal training or a consistent professional model for school administrators on ways to enhance effective leadership by deepening our social and emotional competencies, all of which set the foundation for student success (Byrne-Jimenez, & Orr, 2012). 
Emotional Intelligence is another area that needs to be researched and its relation to school leadership. Stress is an inherent part of leading a school. There is the constant day-to-day grind to not only ensure that schools are accountable for high academic expectations, but also to create an environment where everyone is physically, socially, and emotionally safe. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions in one’s self and others, to understand the causes and effects of emotions, and to manage emotions effectively to suit a goal or situation (Mayer, Caruso, & Salovey, 2016). The obvious here is that school leaders with highly developed EI are better suited to better deal with on the job stress. Those who do not have high EI will have great difficulties. Again, the question remains: Where do school leaders go for formal training or support to assess EI and gather the skills to make improvements? I believe a failure to address this gap can and will lead to principal turnover. As a school principal, I know that there will be stress. This is a given. I believe there is an area that needs to be addressed. How do we as a professional community help each other minimize the stress that could eventually lead to professional burnout? The development of skills as it relates to EI can assist school leaders prevent much of the school-related stress (Salovey & Mayer, 1990).

Stress is an inherent part of leading a school.
Now more than ever, school administrators must be aware and sensitive of the physical and mental well-being of all our students, teachers, and support staff. We also need to be aware of the physical and mental well-being of ourselves as school leaders. It is quite simple in my book: if I am not well, then I cannot effectively lead a school. Let’s truly embrace and commit to protecting our mental health and well-being. We need to find ways to formally support each other within our districts or professional networks. I, for one, rely and depend on ACSA and I am a proud supporter of the ACSA Mentoring Program. Luckily, I have participated in this program as a mentor to a fellow school site principal for the last three years. This connection and network have benefited us both professionally and personally. My strongest recommendation is for all of my school leader peers to join this program.  Strong leadership at school sites is paramount to creating a climate in which all have a chance to succeed. What we have just endured and faced with the Covid-19 pandemic may have forced site leaders to assess their leadership strengths and weaknesses. Here is what my own experience has caused me to evaluate and reflect on: 
  • Now more than ever, it’s important for principals and superintendents to demonstrate strong active leadership capabilities. 
  • We need to be flexible and creative in these new learning challenges. 
  • We also need to grasp and embrace the importance of communication and the immense responsibility of protecting all our learners, faculty, and support staff members. 
We cannot operate in a vacuum. School leaders need to transform their leadership to incorporate prosocial leadership concepts.  “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” John C. Maxwell Resources Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Byrne-Jiménez, M., & Orr, M. T. (2012). Think- ing in three dimensions: Leadership for capacity building, sustainability, and succession. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 15(3), 33–46. Elias, M., O’Brien, M. U., & Weissberg, R. P. (2006). Transformative leadership for social-emotional learning. Principal Leadership, 7(5), 10-13. Mahfouz, J., Greenberg, M. T., & Rodriguez, A. (2019). Principals’ social and emotional competence: A key factor for creating caring schools. University Park, PA: Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. Retrieved from Mayer, J. D., Caruso, D. R., & Salovey, P. (2016). The ability model of emotional intelligence: Principles and updates. Emotion Review, 8(4), 290–300. Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.
Oscar Macias is the principal at Luther Burbank Middle School in the Burbank Unified School District

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators