Social and Emotional Learning: Principal Support is Vital
In late 2019, three education observers wrote an opinion piece for the online news outlet The 74 Million that began with a strong statement: “Our cultural, social, and political breakdown is fresh evidence that we need to do something different in the education and development of leaders.”
Of the trio, John Bridgeland and Matthew Atwell craft domestic, economic, and international policy for the bipartisan organization Civic, while Roger Weissberg is a psychology professor and a leading member of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an advocacy and research group that promotes social and emotional learning (SEL). Drawing upon their focus areas of civics and SEL, Bridgeland, Atwell, and Weissberg discussed the country's declining civic engagement and rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide before presenting a strategy for improvement: a continued emphasis on SEL.
SEL in principle and practice
CASEL, which offers a comprehensive framework designed to promote communication, collaboration, and relationship-building skills, defines SEL as “how adults and children learn to manage and understand emotions.”
Writing for The 74 Million, Bridgeland, Atwell, and Weissberg noted that they have observed SEL in practice at schools across the country over the past 15 years. According to them, SEL looks a lot like democracy and community in action, with students and teachers participating in morning meetings and otherwise co-creating their school experiences.
That said, SEL is about more than just good vibes and positive relationships. Indeed, the three experts characterized it as a “booster rocket to nearly everything we already measure in school—attendance, grades, test scores, ability to get along well with others, high school graduation, college enrollment and attainment, and success in work and civic life.”
Principals’ support is important
Bridgeland, Atwell, and Weissberg went on to emphasize that school leadership is an essential component of SEL, as site-based support is required to implement and prioritize a learning environment that upholds SEL principles.
In 2017, the trio authored a report that gauged school principals’ support for SEL and its ability to positively impact student outcomes. Two years later, an updated report was released that identified what was described as a “near-doubling” in the level of support for SEL expressed by principals in 2019 compared to 2017.
Specifically, 87% of surveyed principals said they believed “state standards should explicitly include SEL,” with many agreeing that a formal SEL curriculum would be beneficial.
Codifying SEL into state requirements would elevate it above the status of a nice-to-include add-on, and incorporating more formal aspects such as standards, curriculum, and assessment will help propel it into the mainstream, thereby increasing its likelihood of becoming a cornerstone of K-12 education.
SEL discussions on the upswing
In a 2019 blog post for the Wallace Foundation, Michigan principal Eric Cardwell noted that SEL has become a topic of much discussion for principals in recent years, with previously deprioritized issues such as self-management and mental health now increasingly being considered vital components of school and student success.
Cardwell, who is president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), has used his position to advocate for more SEL in schools—for instance, by working to develop a guide to SEL implementation for principals titled Leading Lessons: Social Emotional Learning.
According to Cardwell, the guide is intended to help principals “identify the right SEL focus area,” such as promoting a growth mindset and zeroing in on self-regulation skills. Ultimately, school leaders are encouraged to identify and set priorities for SEL based on available data and community input; from there, they can set goals, map out plans of action, and identify practical concerns such as space and time constraints. By securing buy-in through cultivating a diverse cohort of stakeholders, principals can help drive implementation, assessment, and other essentials required to establish a whole-school climate of SEL.
SEL in the COVID-19 era
Although Bridgeland, Atwell, and Weissberg's piece was published before COVID-19 forced students, teachers, principals, and school support staff to adjust their teaching and learning practically overnight, it seems more relevant today than ever. After all, there will likely be an increased focus on the health of student and school communities in the months and years ahead, and principals will undoubtedly appreciate having the groundwork in place to help them support and implement SEL with clarity and focus.
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