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One of the biggest educational trends of the past decade is social-emotional learning. Experts quibble over what these soft skills are exactly but the term generally refers to things like managing emotions, learning to set goals and getting along with others.  Programs to boost these skills have proliferated at schools. Some are sold by curriculum publishers and cost many thousands of dollars. Others are free but can still involve hundreds of hours of teacher training. Many of the programs require carving out entire class periods during the school day to directly and explicitly teach social-emotional skills.

It’s hard for schools to afford them, allocate the time and teach complicated lessons properly.

Stephanie Jones, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, is convinced that the explicit teaching of soft skills benefits students. But she wondered if there was another way. “There are a lot of terrific boxed programs out there that have lots of evidence, but some places aren’t quite ready for that approach,” said Jones. “They want something that either helps them get on the pathway to SEL [social and emotional learning] or that’s more adaptable.”

To respond to that need, Jones has developed more than 40 social-emotional “kernels,” little routines that any teacher can do anytime, be it during a math class or while lining up students in the hallway. One kernel, for example, is “belly breathing,” a technique to help students deal with stress and anxiety. She’s currently refining the kernels, working with focus groups of teachers who are trying them out. But she plans to put them to a formal test in a Sacramento, California, school district during the 2019-20 school year to see if they really work. (The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is funding this focus-group research in California and next year’s study. Chan-Zuckerberg is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

The idea behind kernels emerged almost decade ago from Jones’s earlier work developing classroom games to teach executive function, such as the ability to remember and juggle new information quickly. She developed a series of five-minute brain games and wrote scripted lessons for teachers. But when she tested her invention out in classrooms, she found that teachers used the brain games a lot but not the lessons. The students in these trials showed the greatest improvements in the cognitive areas that the games were targeting.

“We were saying to ourselves, ‘Wow, the teachers were pulling this part out of the program, and doing it a lot,’ ” Jones said. “And lo and behold, the kids’ outcomes were aligned with that. There’s something in this that we have to pursue. Maybe there’s a strategy-based approach for all of SEL [social emotional learning] that might be effective.”

The opportunity came with a 2017 project commissioned by the Wallace Foundation to analyze 25 leading programs that teach social-emotional skills in schools. (The Wallace Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.) The Wallace Foundation wanted a buying guide to help schools compare programs. For Jones, it was also a chance to deconstruct them.

Related: Does a lack of executive function explain why some kids fall way behind in school?

“These programs have been shown to be impactful,” Jones said. “But we don’t have a lot of information about why. What inside them accounts for those effects?”

“Our idea is that maybe what’s driving some of those effects are the things that are common across them that everybody views as important enough to embed in their program,” she said. “What if we pulled those out? Could those just stand on their own? Would we see effects that are similar to or greater than what we observe with a more comprehensive approach?”

Jones and her team pinpointed every strategy and routine that the 25 programs used. For one area alone — managing emotions — the researchers identified 436 different activities. Then they reviewed those activities to isolate ones that were low-cost, quick, easy and not tied to a specific curriculum. After eliminating the ones that required significant preparation or complex materials, 212 remained. Then these 212 strategies were sorted into five buckets: deep breathing, positive self-talk, step-by-step procedures, yoga and exercise.

Each of these five buckets or categories became the essence of a “kernel,” a routine or activity with many variations. In refining the kernels and explaining them to educators, Jones’s team generally picks a specific variation and then offers suggestions for how to modify it for different classrooms or kids of different ages. Deep breathing for managing emotions became “belly breathing.” It can easily be modified into “Darth Vader breathing” for a class that likes “Star Wars” or “sphere breathing” for a class that’s studying three-dimensional shapes. For older students, teachers can incorporate facts about the body and brain to help explain why deep breathing calms the nervous system, releases tension and stress, improves concentration and focus and helps with digestion.

Brain games, such as 10 questions (a quicker version of 20 questions) and the telephone game, have been repurposed as kernels for what Jones calls the cognitive aspects of social-emotional learning. There are loads of others, such as “turtle time” (a self-imposed time out for a child who is feeling angry), “feelings circle,” “conflict solver” and “peer-to-peer written praise.”

A menu of quick and easy solutions that teachers can choose from is attractive. But whether it will work is unknown. If it does, it might be a practical way for teachers to weave social-emotional learning throughout the school day rather than tacking it on as an extra class. And it gives a teacher the flexibility to decide which is the right activity for her classroom at that moment. Many of the activities could be used in after-school programs or even by parents at home.

Related: New advances in measuring social-emotional learning

But just as with full curricula, it’s possible that teachers won’t implement the kernels correctly. According to Jones, you can’t just do the activities. Teachers must first explain the purpose of it, then do the activity and finally, conduct a debriefing conversation. “The breathing is great,” she said. “But the three parts are really important for the breathing to live throughout the day.”

Jones won’t learn how effective her kernels are until after the spring of 2020, when her one-year classroom study ends. She’s planning to compare kids who were exposed to two different sets of kernels along with a group of kids who didn’t get any kernels at all.  But deciding which outcomes to track is tricky. Among the studies of the full soup-to-nuts programs, students tend to score higher on measures of social-emotional skills. These are often based on subjective surveys of teachers or students’ own self-reporting on questionnaires.

Ultimately, we care about whether these social-emotional lessons help kids with big behavioral changes that translate into academic gains. Yet these programs generally haven’t been put through rigorous studies with control groups to prove that kids with social-emotional training learn more. It’s a big question mark whether kernels — an abridged, menu version of these programs — will produce academic gains or whether we should even expect them to in such a short period of time.

This story about social-emotional learning was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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