Social and emotional learning is as important as traditional academic instruction, but it requires a robust support infrastructure to be effective.
The last several years have seen a shift in how educators and child development experts understand the key competencies that students need to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. Thanks to a growing body of research, connections have been found between students’ academic performance and social-emotional competencies like self-awareness, grit, and optimism.
As a result, social and emotional learning (SEL) has become a focus for many schools and districts aiming to facilitate safe, positive learning environments in which students are equipped not only to succeed academically, but to gain the skills they need to understand and manage their emotions.
But creating a school- or district-wide culture in which SEL remains a consistent priority can be challenging. It takes a strategic, thoughtfully designed infrastructure to ensure every teacher is equipped to foster the social and emotional skills that students need to thrive.
Though the precise contours of “social and emotional learning” vary from source to source, a strong consensus has formed around the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL)schematic of five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
According to Shaffer, providing students with opportunities to develop and refine these social and emotional competencies doesn’t only prepare them to succeed in school, but also helps them deal with whatever life throws at them. “Students are going to experience things like poverty, bullying, and any number of other curveballs throughout their childhood and adolescence,” she explains. “SEL gives them the skills they need to succeed. We want every student to be able to walk across the stage at graduation, yes, but we also want them to be prepared to move onto their next adventure and succeed there, as well.”
Shaffer’s confidence in the power of SEL is borne out by a wealth of scientific literature. For instance, a meta-analysis of 213 SEL programs published in Child Development found that SEL significantly reduces incidences of clinical mental health issues, arrests, STDs, teenage pregnancies, and other adverse outcomes of high-risk behaviors. What’s more, students enrolled in schools that provide robust SEL instruction outperform their peers by a full 11 percentile points on standardized tests and are both 6 percent more likely to graduate high school and 11 percent more likely to graduate college.
All told, research has shown that well-crafted SEL curricula can deliver up to an 11:1 ROI, a fact of which an overwhelming majority of school administrators have taken note. In fact, according to one CASEL survey, 83 percent of principals agree that it is “very important” for their school to “promote the development of these competencies in their students,” and an astounding 95 percent are committed to doing so in some way, shape, or form.
If there’s one principle on which the success of an SEL program depends, it’s comprehensiveness. “WCSD is known for how thoroughly we embed SEL throughout our district,” says Shaffer. “You’ll find it in our meetings, you’ll find it in our professional development, you’ll find it in our classrooms, you’ll find it in the way we greet people when they walk in the door. It really is about who we are. It’s not just an add-on to what we’ve always done.”
In other words, the most effective SEL is interwoven into the fabric of an educator’s day-to-day instruction. Successful SEL must start early (think: kindergarten), it must come from educators who are themselves socially and emotionally mature — something that isn’t always the case — and it must become increasingly sophisticated as students become more mature.
“If you believe in whole child development, then you need scaffolding for social and emotional learning concepts,” Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen confirms. “Just as you scaffold learning concepts when teaching math, you need to scaffold learning opportunities when you’re explicitly helping students develop social and emotional competencies.”
Ultimately, delivering sufficiently scaffolded, sufficiently longitudinal SEL requires buy-in from a significant number of stakeholders. As such, like many other educational initiatives, SEL benefits from a well-established multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). With an MTSS in place, it becomes much easier for schools to provide tiered social and emotional instruction. In turn, educators can more easily provide support for students who need it, including positive behavioral intervention and (PBIS) measures like behavior intervention plans.
The overarching framework provided by an MTSS helps teachers, administrators, and support staff cater to each student’s unique social and emotional needs, which in turn both facilitate better academic outcomes and reduces the need for strong disciplinary actions.
That said, SEL instruction will not realize its full potential if it stops at the schoolhouse door. “Community partnerships are vital. It can’t be just the family, it can’t be just the school,” argues Commissioner of the National Defense Industrial Association Craig McKinley. “It’s got to be a network of organizations that support [SEL], and then it has to be woven into the fabric of the community.”
At Hoonuit, we recognize the importance of involving as many stakeholders as possible in social and emotional learning programs, which is why we’ve made our SEL modules available not only to educators but to parents and other community members, as well. When implemented effectively, SEL instruction is a powerful tool, and we’re committed to doing everything we can to bolster the multi-tiered systems of support that school districts — and their broader communities — need to educate the whole child.