Social-emotional learning and teaching

Social-Emotional Learning & Teaching Matters

Table of Contents

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in education systems is more profound than ever before.   With the rise of emotional outbreaks flooding the country, these skills are crucial for student and staff success!  With teacher turnover rates above 50% and the added stress of COVID regulations placed on teachers during the pandemic, SEL has become just as important for teachers as it is for their students.  Learning SEL skills is a critical part of students’ K-12 education; it not only improves student behavior but also improves student outcomes and school climate.  It has the same effects on teachers!

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process of learning social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills.  The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a trusted source of knowledge about high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL). CASEL defined SEL more than two decades ago. They support educators and policy leaders from PreK-12 dealing with SEL.  According to CASEL, “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”  In short, SEL is the skill set that teaches children and adults to be productive members of society.

The 5 Competencies of Social Emotional Learning

CASEL’s five core competencies of social-emotional learning are:

1. Self-Awareness: identifying emotions, self-perception, recognizing strengths, self-confidence, and self-efficacy.

2. Self-Management: executive function and self-regulation, stress management, and self-discipline

3. Responsible Decision-Making: identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, and reflecting

4. Social Awareness: empathy, appreciation of differences, and respect

5. Relationship Skills: communicating clearly, listening, cooperation, resisting negative pressure, resolving conflicts, and supporting one another

Why is SEL important?

SEL skills are necessary life skills. These skills are just as important, if not more important than the core competencies taught in schools. Tons of studies exist on the importance and results of teaching SEL.

One of the most extensive studies of the long-term impacts of SEL was completed by researchers from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); Loyola University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of British Columbia. Their work reviewed over 213 studies on the impacts of SEL. According to CASEL, they found that students who were part of SEL programs showed 11 percentile-point gains in academic achievement over those who were not a part of such programs. Compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs, students participating in SEL programs also showed:

  • Improved classroom behavior
  • An increased ability to manage stress and depression
  • Better attitudes about themselves, others, and school

These student perceptions coupled with developed emotional intelligence lead to long-term academic success. SEL equips at-risk students with the tools they need to overcome obstacles and plug into their education for long-term achievement.

The Four C’s

Scholastic offers numerous articles surrounding the topic of SEL. One particular article discusses The Four C’s. These are four skills that Scholastic deems more important than academics. They are confidence, cooperation, curiosity, and communication.

These are all social skills. With all of the focus on testing these days we often forget the importance of play and interaction. This is where students learn to be productive and functioning members of society. They learn the dos and don’ts of dealing and interacting with others.

This link provides some additional teacher resources from Scholastic for relating to emotions.

Social Emotional Learning and Your School

Where does your school stand on implementing social-emotional skills into the curriculum?  Have you ever considered how it could affect your school’s climate and culture?  I can tell you that it will affect it, in a very positive way!  I have played a key role in transforming my school’s climate and culture and implementing social-emotional skills into the curriculum as attributed to this dramatic change.  You can read more about the climate and culture changes and methods in our article Elevating School Climate and Culture With Social Emotional Learning.  This article will change the way you think about the impacts of SEL on your school.

Job-Related Skills

The World Economic Forum published an article titled, The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This article lists the top 10 ranked skills for 2020. I have displayed the rankings below. Notice how many social and emotional skills make this list.

Regardless of the time in history, location, or population involved in the research, it routinely illustrates that a child’s psychological development directly influences their academic and overall life performance. If this is repeatedly proven, why do teachers fight it?  Many teachers feel this is just another thing to fit into their busy day and their overwhelming curriculum load. It is more important than any other part or piece. If students feel secure and mentally healthy they will learn. Let’s go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Emotional health is at the base of all needs. If this is the case, how can we teach if we aren’t incorporating SEL?

How To Incorporate Social Emotional Learning In Your Teaching

Although the signing of ESSA caused an upshift in focus on SEL from the education industry, these skills and their importance are not new. Many schools and districts scramble to find the right way to teach these newly mandated standards. This is where EDGEucating can help. We at EDGEucating, have been successful at changing school culture. One key factor in changing the culture is teaching SEL. Empowering students is critical to happy and engaged students. Check out our article titled Foster Self-control in Students for more details.

Choosing the best program to implement social and emotional learning in your school can be daunting.  Content-area classrooms are important epicenters for social-emotional learning, and when SEL strategies are incorporated into academic time, the potential for student growth is impressive.  This doesn’t need to be complicated or require expensive curriculums.  Below are a few ideas to incorporate SEL into your classroom.

Increase opportunities for peer connections

One way to incorporate SEL into content-class time is to offer opportunities for peer engagement. Get students to talk and interact positively. Create situations for students to display empathy. Let’s say you’re working on a writing assignment. Allow students to work together to brainstorm or peer edit. Or, if you’re reading a story, sit in a circle or small groups and let students discuss how they empathize with a character’s conflict. In a math class, let students work together to solve a problem. Have a class discussion after a test to discuss how everyone worked through it.

  • Use circle talk 

Circle Talk isn’t just for advisory classes or counseling sessions. Circles are a powerful tool for academic classes that help students learn by listening to their peers, contributing to discussions, and developing and expressing empathy. Refer to this lesson on Academic Peace Circles for an example.

  • Offer student choice

An important component of SEL is teaching students how to make responsible decisions and set goals. When students are allowed to make choices in class, it empowers them to learn, be responsible, and cultivate positive autonomy. Additionally, by allowing students to make decisions, they have more of a stake in living up to their choices.

  • Engage in self-reflection

When students have the time and space to stop and think about their decisions, actions, or progress, they can develop the skills necessary to manage their emotions, plan for their future, and make healthy decisions. To best guide children in the habits of reflection, refer to Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. After an assignment, let students reflect upon their work by writing or engaging in a circle talk with their peers. Ask students to give themselves a grade and explain their choice. Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their academic habits throughout the semester or year.

  • Model social-emotional skills through your actions

Students learn a lot by watching the adults in their lives. As teachers, we are role models who spend a great deal of time with our students. Therefore, we must be models of the social skills we preach. This includes managing anger, collegial interactions, constructive criticism, and stress while displaying honesty and integrity. “By heightening adults’ mindfulness of the impact their words and actions are having, schools can intentionally take advantage of daily interactions to further develop students’ social and emotional competencies,” according to the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.  As teachers model positive interactions, students will emulate these behaviors in their peer interactions.

Additional Resources:

SEL Isn’t Just for Elementary Students!

The high-school years are formative, and attending a high-performing high school can build a foundation for success in adulthood. But what does high-performing really mean? What are some metrics to consider for success? A study conducted in Chicago Public Schools provides fresh answers to these enduring questions.

Chicago Public Schools is a large urban school district with 133 public high schools, including neighborhood, charter, vocational, and magnet schools. About 86 percent of students are from families with economic disadvantages. Forty-two percent of students are Black, and 44 percent are Latin.  Since 2010–11, students in grades 6–12 have participated in an annual survey about their experiences previously known as My Voice, My School, and now called the 5 Essentials survey.

This survey found that some high schools are better than others at helping students develop healthy social lives, community connections, and the skills and habits that promote hard work and grit. It also illustrates that students who attend such a school are more likely to experience positive outcomes in school and after graduation, from being more likely to attend a four-year college to having less interaction with the criminal justice system. The survey focused its analysis on students in 9th grade. This transition year is an important window of opportunity to establish strong ties to the school.  Check out the images below as a testimonial of what SEL can do for your school.

Evidence-Based Programs:

With the magnitude of evidence illustrating SEL’s contributions to academic success, how do educators choose the right SEL program? Edutopia addresses some of the most effective research-proven SEL programs in a detailed article.  Their specific recommendations are:

In addition to their list above, Edutopia mentions Service Learning and Schoolwide Positive Support learning.  These are the two that we found to be most successful in our school.  3DuxDesign has numerous service learning lessons to choose from.  My personal favorite is their Global Futures Lab projects.  Service-based learning projects get students involved in designing, implementing, and evaluating aspects of both themselves and their community.  It also helps develop community partnerships that provide real-world context for service, communication, and interaction.  All of these will naturally help teach students positive social development skills.

Schoolwide Positive Support learning is the basis of everything that we at EDGEucating stand for and teach in our professional development.  This is how we have overhauled multiple schools.  This is the foundation of a positive school climate and culture.  If you are an educational leader that is looking for guidance on implementing this method in your school, you will want to check out the following resources:

SEL Promotes Economic Advancement & Positive Life Outcomes

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health looked at students 13 to 19 years after they received social skills training through the Fast Track Project. Fast Track, which was run in four communities: Durham, Nashville, rural Pennsylvania, and Seattle, describes its work as “based on the hypothesis that improving child competencies, parenting effectiveness, school context, and school-home communications will, over time, improve psychopathology from early childhood through adulthood.”

The study also found that teaching social skills in kindergarten leads to students being less likely to live in public housing, receive public assistance, or be involved in criminal activity. “At age 25, people who were assigned to the program are happier, have fewer psychiatric and substance abuse problems, are less likely to have risky sex, and are arrested less often for severe violence and drug-related crimes,” according to Child Trends.

Early interventions of SEL show outcomes far into adulthood, reducing the life risks for impoverished and at-risk students.

SEL Helps Teachers Balance Job Stressors!

While the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for educators, they have long been familiar with high levels of stress and dissatisfaction in their jobs. According to a report from the Learning Policy Institute, about two-thirds of teachers who leave their position each year do so for reasons other than retirement, including dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressures, lack of administrative support, and dissatisfaction with the teaching career and working conditions.

Despite all the data, comprehensive SEL training for educators is currently not widely available. All states include some SEL competency training for teachers in their certification requirements.  While most required courses in colleges of education include information on social awareness and responsible decision-making competencies, fewer than 10 percent include training on other key aspects of SEL such as self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills.  Training in the learning context—which includes training on classroom management, schoolwide coordination, and supportive school-family-community partnerships—often focuses on a negative approach, such as how to discipline student misbehavior, rather than a positive approach, such as how to create supportive teacher-student relationships.  Additionally, educators need continued training once they enter the classroom, but such opportunities are often not comprehensive—or even available.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated stressful working conditions and made the need to address shortcomings in SEL training more pressing.  While navigating the stress of relearning how to teach, educators were also facing threats of layoffs and budget cuts. Early in the pandemic, researchers predicted widespread teacher layoffs like those that occurred after the Great Recession in 2008.  Pandemic-related stressors took their toll. Nearly half of public school teachers who quit their jobs after February 2020 did so because of the pandemic, citing longer hours and working an average of 52 hours per week, having to navigate the remote environment, and experiencing technical problems.

SEL Educator Support Benefits School Communities

Providing social-emotional learning support for educators has also been shown to benefit students and school communities. Research by Pennsylvania State University found that teachers who developed their SEL skills improved both their own well-being and the social, emotional, and academic development of their students.  On the other hand, research from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that teachers who were required to teach SEL without being provided professional opportunities to develop their own SEL skills worsened the skills of their students.

Research has found that school leaders who have strong social and emotional competencies positively affect teacher effectiveness and school climate.  Providing educators with SEL support results in lower levels of stress in the workforce, improved employee attendance, increased ability to model positive emotions for students, and lower levels of turnover.  As school districts look to recover from the pandemic, investing in the SEL skills of their workforces will be essential.

SEL Recommendations

In an Edweek article, Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University and a founder of CASEL, stated “I think there are districts that feel they have to check SEL off as one thing they’ve done. They purchase curricula and they buy online training, and in most cases, if you go back two years later, you won’t find anything.” This is all too often what we find in education, regardless of the curricula purchased. Don’t be another statistic where nothing changes.

School districts and individual schools should invest some of the federal relief funds they receive from the American Rescue Plan in efforts to establish norms, practices, and resources that support educators’ social and emotional needs. These should both address immediate concerns and be sustainable in the long term. The U.S. Department of Education has affirmed that funds can and should be used to support educators’ social and emotional needs in the “Supporting Educator and Staff Stability and Well-Being” section of Volume 2 of its COVID-19 handbook.  Districts should employ multiple strategies and targeted supports to ensure that all educators’ unique needs are being met.

Schools looking for funding to implement social-emotional learning can check out Apeture Education for several funding source ideas.   You can also utilize our article on grant writing to assist you in the process.

Please share any noteworthy SEL curriculum or resources in the comments below.  Happy & healthy teaching!

About the Author: Alicia Verweij

Alicia is a seasoned educator that is passionate about teaching children to think critically, problem-solve, and function in an ever-changing digital world so that they will be prepared for future careers. She’s an active supporter of new educators and is known as an innovator in STEAM education. As a teaching veteran of more than 12 years, she holds a Master of Education in Educational Leadership, a B.S. in Business Management, an Alternate Route Education Certification, and an endorsement in Gifted Education. She is an educational influencer, founder, and consultant at EDGEucating LLC.

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