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Social-emotional learning sets stage for school success

Educators elevate social-emotional learning to ensure students have healthy mindsets to achieve academically
COMPASSION IN ACTION—At Johnston Elementary School in Buncombe County Schools, police officers spent time with students last summer after three shootings in the community. The school uses “compassionate response,” which in part means giving students specific duties to feel proud of themselves and valued by staff.
COMPASSION IN ACTION—At Johnston Elementary School in Buncombe County Schools, police officers spent time with students last summer after three shootings in the community. The school uses “compassionate response,” which in part means giving students specific duties to feel proud of themselves and valued by staff.

A focus on teaching social-emotional skills—persistence, resilience, communication and other non-cognitive abilities—has led to an obvious jump in reading and math scores in Nevada’s Washoe County School District.

Washoe’s students are now “less likely to be suspended, more likely to attend school, and they graduate at a much higher rate than students who didn’t have those competencies,” says Laura Davidson, the district’s director of research and evaluation. And those improvements hold true for students from families of diverse economic status.

Four years ago, the 65,000-student school system joined a national initiative led by the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL) to enhance social-emotional instruction. Washoe County has since integrated social-emotional instruction into its academic curriculum and created a unique competencies assessment.

Educators across the country have, like Washoe, boosted student performance by weaving social-emotional lessons—such as regulating emotion, accepting mistakes and coping with stress—into everyday instruction.

Life skills

According to CASEL, “social and emotional learning involves the processes 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.”

Educators have always nurtured such skills in children, but pressure to demonstrate academic achievement still causes many schools to focus most instructional time on core academics. But as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has pointed out, the skills people need to survive and thrive now include knowing how to interact with others, communicate, think critically and innovate.

“Technology means that a whole lot of what our kids used to learn—and still learn—is really accessible by computer,” says Thomas Hoerr, author of The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs. “What we need to do is teach them skills that will be important in life, not just on a standardized test.”

Schools throughout the country are now doing just that, using a variety of interventions, from pre-packaged social-emotional curricula (with lessons delivered by counselors or classroom teachers) to comprehensive, districtwide initiatives that integrate social-emotional learning with academic lessons and community service. These interventions are designed to help students manage strong emotions, control impulses, respect others, make responsible decisions and problem-solve.

Build your own program

Here are four steps that some educators say lead to successful SEL programs:

1. Change in climate and culture.

“In order for social-emotional learning to happen, you have to change everybody’s mindset,” says John Carver, superintendent of Howard-Winnishiek Community School District in Iowa.

Strong district leadership sets the tone and expectation. “My first year here in the district, I modeled growth mindset and positive thinking,” says Carver, now in his fourth year at Howard-Winnishiek. “Part of the reason I did that is to inspire other people.”

The next year, the district began embedding social-emotional learning into the curriculum. In math class, for instance, teachers accept student mistakes and explicitly encourage kids to move beyond thinking, “I’m no good at math” to “I’ve solved other problems before. I can learn to do this too.”

The district also hired a school social worker as a resource for students who need more intensive support. Therese Jorgenson, director of student services, spent much of the year leading professional development sessions in social-emotional learning for educators at all levels.

2. Explicit instruction

It’s not enough to simply talk about social-emotional learning or role-model respectful communication and teamwork. Direct instruction helps students understand how their bodies and brains respond to stress, and helps them learn other modes of acting and reacting.

Educators may draw attention to students’ physical reactions to stress—increased heart rate, an upset stomach, a jittery feeling. They may discuss the brain’s fight-or-flight response, and their usual responses to stress, such as avoiding difficult work or getting into fights.

And then teachers may introduce techniques such as deep breathing or reframing the situation so students can calm their bodies and minds when they feel those physical reactions in the future.

Various social-emotional learning curricula are already on the market. Some are aimed at elementary students, others at middle school and high school students.

Because so many curricula exist, CASEL has published two guides to help educators identify and select well-designed, evidence-based programs.

3. Academic integration

“You don’t want to have social-emotional learning being taught in a 45-minute lesson and nothing else,” says Sean Slade, ASCD’s director of outreach and author of School Climate Change: How Do I Build A Positive Environment for Learning.

Well-prepared teachers can begin to weave lessons of persistency, grit, collaboration and resilience into academic instruction—and when that happens, students get the message that social-emotional learning is more than something to discuss once a week with a counselor.

An English teacher, for instance, may guide students through multiple drafts of a written composition to explicitly illustrate the value of persistence and resilience. It is then followed by discussions of emotional awareness that feeds into reading comprehension. And as students become more aware of their own feelings and those of others, they can apply those skills as they discuss and write about various forms of literature.

Ultimately, combining social-emotional learning and academics saves educational time. “You’re not pulling students out to engage in social and emotional learning,” says Washoe’s Hayes. “You’re embedding it in trigonometry, in algebra, in English.”

Washoe County Schools is so devoted to academic integration that it paid some of their teachers to develop model lessons over the summer. Those lessons, which combine academic and social-emotional instruction, were filmed. The lesson plans and videos will be posted online, on the district website, so other teachers can learn from them. 

4. Reflection and refinement

The assessment of social-emotional skills is a hotly debated topic. Yet district administrators want the ability to measure the effectiveness of such skills.

A variety of social-emotional assessments are on the market or in development. Some assessments ask students to gauge their skill level. Students may be asked to rank how difficult or easy certain tasks are, such as joining a group they don’t usually sit with at lunch. Other assessments ask students to respond to hypothetical situations, such as another student taking their pencil.

Another approach is to assess students’ social-emotional development by examining attendance, discipline referrals and GPA. “The idea is that one of the ways to measure whether students have these non-cognitive skills is to look at the kinds of behaviors that are usually reflective of those skills,” says Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.

One point most educators, researchers and academics agree on is that the existing measures should not be used for high-stakes accountability. “These measures are still too immature,” Hayes says. “I advise caution to states and districts considering using them for weighted accountability.”

Indeed, the real benefit of assessment is to spur discussion and further development of social-emotional learning. “We’ve been able to share data with teachers, principals, parents and students,” says Davidson of Washoe County, “and that has students talking about why certain skills are difficult for them, and teachers thinking about how they can plan lessons around those skills.” DA

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Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.