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June 14th, 2018

It shouldn’t take another suicide or school shooting to get districts to embrace the power of social-emotional learning.

In light of tragic events that have put a recent focus on school safety issues, it’s more important than ever to understand the value of students’ social and emotional learning (SEL). While districts are starting to talk about social-emotional learning and the value of measuring SEL data to help students succeed, it’s time to start taking immediate action.

By almost every measure, the majority of public school students today face daunting socioeconomic and emotional pressures. A disturbingly high number of students experience trauma at home, and their attitudes towards learning and dispositions towards school vary widely. In fact, studies show that up to 60% of all high school students are “chronically disengaged” from their own learning (Klem & Connell, 2004).

The Internet is another factor that has an impact on students’ ability to develop socially and emotionally. Not only does the time students spend online detract from traditional activities that foster personal growth and community engagement (Weissberg & Durlack, 2015), it also effectively blurs the lines between real and virtual lives. Cyberbullying has become an epidemic, and a remarkable 20% of middle-school students reported seriously contemplating suicide in a survey conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center.

How Can SEL Help?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) , one of the leading research and advocacy organizations in this growing field, SEL is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

In practice, teaching SEL Involves fostering students’ analytical, communication, and collaborative skills through a combination of direct instruction and student-centered learning in five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

CASEL’s widely used framework for systemic SEL

The research on the value of social and emotional learning is clear: SEL improves schools and pays dividends for students down the road.

The short-term benefits include not only a safer and more inclusive school environment, but also better academic performance. Students who have mastered SEL competencies achieve better grades, are more engaged in learning and in the school community, and tend to avoid risky behaviors.

Long-term benefits of comprehensive SEL programs include breaking the cycle of poverty, better jobs and careers, increased civic engagement, and decreased criminal activity.

Bringing SEL to Schools: Use Success Stories to Facilitate Buy-In

Despite research showing the clear benefits of SEL, some stakeholders in education are reluctant to fully embrace it. Responsibility for students’ social and emotional growth is often seen as the domain of institutions outside the school. Yet in districts where SEL has been implemented—CASEL “Partner Districts”—the results have been eye-opening:

  • Since implementing SEL in 2012, the Washoe County, Nevada school district reports increased graduation rates from 55% to 75%. SEL is a key strategy in the district’s goal to achieve a 90% graduation rate by 2020.
  • At the Austin Independent School District, schools with more years in SEL are showing better attendance rates, fewer discretionary removals, and higher feelings of safety among students.
  • After just one to two years of SEL, select sites in Metro Nashville Public Schools have reported a 33% reduction in disciplinary referrals, 60% fewer suspensions, and a 23% learning gap decrease among limited English proficiency students.

One reason why SEL is so effective is that it does not try to replace the role of the school or community in the child’s education, but to complement it. SEL shapes interactions between students and adults at all levels, creating a welcoming environment that fosters participation.

As CASEL clearly acknowledges, “SEL is not a single program or teaching method. It involves coordinated strategies across classrooms, schools, homes and communities, and districts.”   

Using Data to Ensure SEL Effectiveness

SEL indicators are non-cognitive byproducts of SEL competencies that can be measured, tracked, and analyzed. For example, if a student needs to improve in the self management SEL competency, he or she may demonstrate a high level of impulsiveness. By monitoring such indicators, educators can help students avoid behaviors that can impact academic performance and disrupt learning for others.

Best practices in SEL assessment approaches suggest that social and emotional learning should be embedded in the core curriculum. For example, Jim Ryan, Executive Director of STEM in the San Francisco Unified School District, and a talented team in the Curriculum and Instruction Department have developed units of study that focus on a “classroom culture that values sense making, communication, collaboration, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.” This sets students up for success by helping them work together and adopt a mindset suited for success. Jim Ryan and team understand that the most effective team-building approach puts students on the same page when it comes to learning while enhancing their SEL competencies at the same time.

We can no longer afford to ignore the power of SEL to help create safe and nurturing learning environments.


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