10 ways for schools to gain traction with social-emotional learning programs

10 ways for schools to gain traction with social-emotional learning programs

Last year, schools ramped up social-emotional learning (SEL) to help students cope with the trauma of the pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning. Now, many educators, buoyed by evidence of SEL’s value and parent surveys endorsing the emphasis on well-being in the classroom, say they are committed to SEL this year and beyond.

An influx of government money enabled schools to hire staff and launch SEL programs, which include lessons about showing empathy to others, managing emotions and developing responsible decision making.

“The case is easily made, if you think that learning happens in the context of relationships,” said Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit that produced an SEL roadmap to reopening schools. “If you focus on social-emotional learning in a high-quality way, not only do you see gains in social-emotional competence and growth you see gains in academic learning. We are trying to move away from this ‘either-or’ thinking to see this as a ‘both-and’ approach.’”

SEL tops the list of services parents want expanded, especially in urban areas, according to school district leaders polled in June by the Rand Corporation. Studies reveal declines in children’s behavioral health during the pandemic. In a July McGraw-Hill survey, 53 percent of educators said Covid-19 and the shift to remote learning have caused their students emotional distress and created attendance problems. About 8 in 10 educators and parents believe SEL has become more important, the poll indicates; stand-alone SEL programs have doubled in the past three years.

Still, schools may need to rely on local district funding to keep SEL programs going when the federal grants expire. And not everyone is convinced of the program’s value: Some skeptics fear it takes away from core instruction. Experts, however, point to years of research linking SEL to academic success and other benefits as evidence for continued investment. But perceptions vary, so communication with families is critical for schools and districts wanting to expand or maintain their SEL programs.

While many support the practices of social-emotional learning, they are leery of the program by that name. A report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit that promotes educational excellence, finds Republican parents are somewhat more wary than Democrats of SEL, but parents across the political spectrum are united in their disdain for the term “social-emotional learning,” preferring “life skills” instead.

Whatever SEL is called, experts maintain kids need extra care during times of uncertainty — and this year is going to be as turbulent as any, with schools opening, closing and quarantining, said Stephanie Jones, a professor of education at the Harvard School of Graduate Education and co-author an analysis of leading SEL programs, sponsored by the Wallace Foundation. (The Wallace Foundation is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report.) “We really got to weave in those social and emotional supports early and spend time on it so kids begin to feel safe, secure, comfortable, excited. And then the learning stuff will happen.”

Experts recommend 10 best practices to consider when implementing SEL:

Take a systemic approach.

Include school administrators, teachers, support staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and all students in SEL activities. “Don’t go it alone. Engage your colleagues, explain to them why it’s important,” said Shai Fuxman, a senior research scientist with the Education Development Center, a Massachusetts-based global nonprofit that designs and evaluates education programs. “Every adult in the building has to think about their role in promoting these important skills,” he added. Experts also urge parents and educators to pay attention to bite-sized opportunities outside the classroom to reinforce the concepts, including lessons from out-of-school time programs (supervised programs that young people attend when school is not in session). “SEL happens in teachable moments, if you are doing it authentically,” said Joe Aleardi, executive director of Horizons Bridgeport, who used the SEL Kernels of Practice in enrichment programs for low-income students while working at another Horizon program at Greens Farms Academy in Connecticut.