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Last year, schools ramped up social-emotional learning (SEL) to help students cope with the trauma of the pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning. Now, many educators, buoyed by evidence of SEL’s value and parent surveys endorsing the emphasis on well-being in the classroom, say they are committed to SEL this year and beyond.

An influx of government money enabled schools to hire staff and launch SEL programs, which include lessons about showing empathy to others, managing emotions and developing responsible decision making.

“The case is easily made, if you think that learning happens in the context of relationships,” said Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit that produced an SEL roadmap to reopening schools. “If you focus on social-emotional learning in a high-quality way, not only do you see gains in social-emotional competence and growth you see gains in academic learning. We are trying to move away from this ‘either-or’ thinking to see this as a ‘both-and’ approach.’”

SEL tops the list of services parents want expanded, especially in urban areas, according to school district leaders polled in June by the Rand Corporation. Studies reveal declines in children’s behavioral health during the pandemic. In a July McGraw-Hill survey, 53 percent of educators said Covid-19 and the shift to remote learning have caused their students emotional distress and created attendance problems. About 8 in 10 educators and parents believe SEL has become more important, the poll indicates; stand-alone SEL programs have doubled in the past three years.

This wall at Skyline High School in Mesa, Arizona is part of “Rainbow in the Clouds, “a lesson in the Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR) model of SEL. Students are encouraged to write about ways to show kindness to others. The lesson is inspired by a Maya Angelou quote, “The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.” Credit: Image provided by Skyline High School

Still, schools may need to rely on local district funding to keep SEL programs going when the federal grants expire. And not everyone is convinced of the program’s value: Some skeptics fear it takes away from core instruction. Experts, however, point to years of research linking SEL to academic success and other benefits as evidence for continued investment. But perceptions vary, so communication with families is critical for schools and districts wanting to expand or maintain their SEL programs.

While many support the practices of social-emotional learning, they are leery of the program by that name. A report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit that promotes educational excellence, finds Republican parents are somewhat more wary than Democrats of SEL, but parents across the political spectrum are united in their disdain for the term “social-emotional learning,” preferring “life skills” instead.

Whatever SEL is called, experts maintain kids need extra care during times of uncertainty — and this year is going to be as turbulent as any, with schools opening, closing and quarantining, said Stephanie Jones, a professor of education at the Harvard School of Graduate Education and co-author an analysis of leading SEL programs, sponsored by the Wallace Foundation. (The Wallace Foundation is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report.) “We really got to weave in those social and emotional supports early and spend time on it so kids begin to feel safe, secure, comfortable, excited. And then the learning stuff will happen.”

Experts recommend 10 best practices to consider when implementing SEL:

Take a systemic approach.

Include school administrators, teachers, support staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and all students in SEL activities. “Don’t go it alone. Engage your colleagues, explain to them why it’s important,” said Shai Fuxman, a senior research scientist with the Education Development Center, a Massachusetts-based global nonprofit that designs and evaluates education programs. “Every adult in the building has to think about their role in promoting these important skills,” he added. Experts also urge parents and educators to pay attention to bite-sized opportunities outside the classroom to reinforce the concepts, including lessons from out-of-school time programs (supervised programs that young people attend when school is not in session). “SEL happens in teachable moments, if you are doing it authentically,” said Joe Aleardi, executive director of Horizons Bridgeport, who used the SEL Kernels of Practice in enrichment programs for low-income students while working at another Horizon program at Greens Farms Academy in Connecticut.

Make it a clear a priority.

If SEL is optional, it will feel like an add-on to educators, said Catherine Pilcher Bradshaw, an education professor and associate dean at the University of Virginia. Set the expectation that SEL will be part of the core curriculum — not a filler — and dedicate time and training so it happens. Teachers must be willing to use the material, and be provided incentives to do so, as necessary. “SEL is most impactful when it’s sustained and implemented consistently,” Bradshaw said.

Emphasize adult well-being.

“Kids do well if adults in their environment are doing well,” said StaceyMcEnerney, director of social emotional learning for Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where she added programs and training are aimed at creating a culture of care among the staff. The school offers adult yoga classes, support groups and incentives for staff to participate. To bring their best selves to work, McEnerney said, adults need tend to their own needs and have SEL skills themselves. Experts say when adults have a healthy attitude toward SEL, lessons are less rote, and conversations with kids can be more meaningful.

Select evidence-based programs and lean into data.

Using high-quality, proven approaches is essential to getting results. “Social-emotional learning is not just random acts of kindness. It has to be strategic, there has to be a plan to it,” said Stephanie Andrews, executive director of student and family support services at Tulsa Public Schools. CASEL offers a program guide grounded in research, recently updated with an eye to equity. Experts suggest continually surveying students and educators to assess what works to improve program effectiveness.

Include all grades.

“We have this idea once students are in high school, they are fully formed. But their emotional needs are just as high and maybe are even more intense,” said Angie Ryter, assistant principal at South St. Paul High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where an SEL curriculum has been embraced. Promoting skills to cope with increased anxiety caused by social media and academic pressures can be particularly helpful in the transition to college and career. To make sure the messages resonate with teens, invite students to help, said Ryan Voegtlin, director of student and school support services in Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland. High school students in his district were asked to create videos talking about their experience using goal setting or mindfulness practice. The videos were then embedded in the SEL curriculum. “We made a concerted effort to make sure all kids were represented. We wanted them to be able to see themselves, no matter what their cultural or gender identity was,” he said.

Integrate SEL in the daily routine.

Beyond talking about SEL skills explicitly in lessons, integrate the practices into the curriculum and encourage teachers to model the strategies. CASEL promotes three signature practices: Open each class with welcoming inclusion activities; embed engaging strategies (including brain breaks to anchor thinking and learning); and end each activity on an optimistic note. These practices can be incorporated into staff meetings, to reinforce the concepts for everybody in the building.

Promote continuity and build on concepts.

As principal at Lake Elmo Elementary in Lake Minnesota, Stephen Gorde oversees SEL using the Second Step program and BARR curriculum — Building Assets, Reducing Risks. Gorde said it’s critical that programs are aligned vertically and horizontally. “If we’re hitting one skill really hard in second grade and we don’t complement that in third or fourth grade, that’s kind of lost,” he said. To be most effective, he said, get the entire school to participate and follow the structure carefully to ensure continuity as children progress. SEL is about building feelings of belonging and safety, which is closely tied to promoting equity across a school community, experts say.

Be aware of the complexities of diverse communities.

In the quick expansion of SEL during Covid-19, not all voices were heard at the table to create the curriculum, said Zoe Higheagle Strong, assistant professor of educational psychology at Washington State University. Many youth of color are facing multiple traumas that were exacerbated by Covid-19, she said, and schools are not always equipped to address their needs nor are teachers trained adequately to respond. Educators should invite input on the content and guidance for interacting with students from parents and students, especially those from diverse communities. “Actions speak stronger than words,” she said, urging schools to look beyond traditional SEL. “It can be dangerous to teach social-emotional learning when there is not a relational connection with these students. When a student is going through trauma and they don’t feel you creating a safe space, you open up a wound.” Strong proposes reimagining SEL with an explicit orientation toward social justice that engages students and communities in projects of activism, healing and compassion.

Customize carefully.

Listen to local leaders and tailor elements of SEL, without straying from the core structure of the program — such as shortchanging the time for activities. Tulsa County Public Schools, for example, modified the language of its SEL resources to reflect the terminology used to describe the goals in the district’s new strategic plan, language that was already familiar to school leaders. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, school leaders went with the broader label of “community wellness” as a concept everyone could get behind, said Voegtlin.

Clearly communicate with parents.

A week before school started at Lake Elmo Elementary, teachers had conferences with every student and family — a new practice that principal Gorde said was added, in part, to discuss social-emotional supports along with academics. The recent Fordham poll indicates that, while parents widely accept the concept, SEL programs are not universally embraced. There are some misconceptions about what is being taught with SEL and concern there is a tradeoff with time spent on academics. “Use plain language. Some of this verbiage can alienate certain parents or be off putting,” said Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the Fordham Institute. “When you talk in specifics, parents are usually on board, but when you use abstract terms, you tend to lose a lot of parents.”

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