Social-Emotional Learning: Why It's Needed Now More Than Ever

Social-Emotional Learning: Why It's Needed Now More Than Ever

Over the past few years, social-emotional learning (SEL) has steadily gained traction in K–12 education. Quoted by education news site The 74 Million, Harvard University professor Stephanie Jones described SEL as "kind of an every-moment thing, meaning it's in every interaction, it's in all relationships, and so it doesn't turn on and off depending on the setting." And in this day and age, the five core competencies of the approach—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—are more important than ever.

Research links SEL to benefits in and beyond the classroom

Studies have shown that, on average, students who participate in SEL programs achieve higher grades and have better high-school and college graduation rates. And the benefits don't stop there.

As reported by The 74 Million, research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that students with SEL skills transition into adulthood with additional lifestyle and mental health advantages compared to those who do not. More specifically, CASEL researchers linked SEL to a decreased likelihood of being arrested, having a clinical mental health disorder, being diagnosed with a conduct disorder, and contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

And with today's students experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety related to higher education, social media, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and even politics, it is a fortuitous time for SEL to be in the spotlight.

SEL can help foster the leaders of tomorrow

At a time of great political, cultural, and social turmoil, researchers Roger Weissberg of CASEL and John Bridgeland and Matthew Atwell of the bipartisan organization Civic assert that school administrators who prioritize SEL have the power to shape the next generation for the better. In 2017, the trio conducted a survey to gain insight into how school principals view SEL, then repeated the effort two years later. Here is a snapshot of some of the most powerful findings:

  • 87%: the percentage of principals who believed in 2019 that state standards should explicitly include SEL—almost double the percentage of those who reported having the same belief in 2017

  • 70%: the percentage of principals who expressed support in 2019 for teachers following a formal SEL curriculum, up from 43% in 2017

  • 70%: the percentage of principals who believed in 2019 that students' SEL skills should be assessed, up from 58% in 2017

School administrators have a unique opportunity to instill important values in our future leaders by prioritizing social-emotional elements of teaching and learning, and these encouraging findings seem to suggest increased enthusiasm for SEL among their ranks.

Putting SEL into practice

Of course, recognizing the value of SEL is one thing, and implementing the practice into a school's programming and culture is quite another. With this in mind, CASEL has created an implementation guide that covers budgeting, staffing, parental engagement, and an array of other real-world challenges. Using the guide, stakeholders can advance through the step-by-step process of compiling a plan, putting it into action, continuously assessing their progress, and making the adjustments required to optimize results.

In addition to incorporating SEL throughout the school day, instating after-school programs that focus on SEL has emerged as another valuable piece of the puzzle, particularly for students of lower socioeconomic status. For instance, a randomized controlled trial found that after two years, kindergartners and first-graders who attended Wings for Kids—a free privately and government-funded program that has thus far been implemented at 11 low-income schools in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia—had higher rates of improvement in skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation, decision-making, reading, and vocabulary compared to their peers who did not participate in the program.

According to The 74 Million, Wings for Kids teaches students how to put themselves in someone else's SHOES—an acronym that reminds them to evaluate the sound of a person's voice, how the person acts, their outer appearance, the expression on their face, and their surroundings. The SHOES concept is hammered home with a Wings for Kids activity in which students are paired up to play a game of Horseshoes and the winner is encouraged to consider how their opponent might be feeling about losing.

The bottom line

With studies indicating that early development of social and emotional skills can yield lifelong benefits for students, the time has come for stakeholders to reconsider how they view SEL. Once seen as little more than a "nice-to-have" curricular accoutrement, SEL has emerged as an essential component of a student's educational experience that should be regarded as such by educators and administrators alike.

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