After two-plus years of the pandemic crisis, school closure, and disruptions that we continue to face, there is a growing debate that schools should spend their time and money on mitigating learning loss instead of social-emotional learning. The concern is that there is just not enough time in the school day to devote to academics and social-emotional learning. Moreover, let us not forget some of the horrible, tragic shootings in our schools which also supports the need to focus on mental health and social-emotional learning.
Academics and Social-Emotional Learning: Should We Teach Academics or Social-Emotional Learning?
We must ask ourselves if students can learn when their mental or emotional needs are not addressed in our schools? We know for certain that before the pandemic, depression, anxiety, and suicide rates were a real concern for our students. The pandemic and other major events over the past two-plus years have highlighted the fact that we must focus on academic and social-emotional well-being, it is not either-or, but we must find a way to focus on both in our schools.
When we create safe and supportive classroom environments inclusive of social-emotional learning as part of the curriculum, we accelerate and mitigate learning loss. When students are equipped with the appropriate tools to identify and use the skills that they have learned about how to handle feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, sadness, worry, or strong negative emotions, they are able to regulate their emotions and process the information that is being taught in our classrooms.
Teachers can have the most engaging lessons, but when students are dealing with anxiety, stress, trauma, or crisis, it is almost impossible for them to be present to process the content and participate because they are in the midst of a mental health crisis or social-emotional challenge.
Right Now: Why Is SEL A Core Component of Classroom Instruction?
When we think about students who returned to school for the first time after school closure and the impact on their mental health as well as the limited social interactions during this time, we would be remiss not to take a step back to assess these critical areas. School leaders should collaborate with their staff and parents to identify an SEL screener so that everyone has a deeper understanding of what students need. More importantly, this will provide everyone with a shared language around ‘What SEL Is and What SEL Is Not.’
Teachers, students, and parents will know and understand what each SEL competency looks like and feels like in practice. The screener will also provide insight into professional development training that will be needed to support teachers with integrating SEL across the curricula so that SEL is not something that is quite often described as “We do SEL” or an add on but more of a seamless way of teaching good instruction that includes the mental and social-emotional health components that students need to handle conflict more productively in their personal lives and for long-term success.
SEL is not a solution for all of our schools’ challenges as we move past the pandemic crisis. However, we must also ensure that school leaders and teachers are aware of their social-emotional competencies so that they are able to model and teach students the social-emotional skills they need to be successful in school and beyond. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) developed a framework that defines the five core competencies of SEL. These are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills.
In order to address the current needs of our students, we must connect the pieces to this puzzle which is to ensure that parents, students, and teachers have the appropriate tools and right resources. SEL is an educational approach that emphasizes direct instruction of skills like how to address students’ non-academic needs.
What Does the Research Say About SEL?
Our schools are made up of students with diverse academic, behavioral, mental health, and social-emotional needs. There are some debates about whether SEL should not be taught in schools because it is the parents’ responsibility. Some parents will reference their childhood and how parents addressed social-emotional needs. However, students’ experience two or more decades ago is not the reality in today’s classroom. The effects of social media, teen suicide, depression, and other stressors were not trends during their parents’ era. Some parents do not have the time, attention, or skill to address their children’s mental health or social-emotional needs, so this is not a viable solution.
The research is clear about the impact on mental health, student achievement, graduation rates, increased enrollment in institutions of higher learning, and a decrease in at-risk students and the school to prison pipeline. According to a follow-up study in 2017 to a study conducted in 2011, the findings stated that the effects of the long-term benefits of SEL which were measured years after instruction in core components of SEL. “In the follow-up assessments, an average of 3.5 years after the last intervention, the academic performance of students exposed to SEL programs was an average 13 percentile points higher than their non-SEL peers, based on the eight studies that measured academics,” the study indicates. “SEL continued to boost student well-being in the form of greater social and emotional competencies, prosocial behavior, and prosocial attitudes. Furthermore, SEL students showed lasting decreases in negative outcomes such as to conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use, compared to control groups.”
Why We Need Social Emotional Learning in Our Schools!
We have shared the research and discussed why SEL is a critical next step to support school leaders, teachers, students, and families. As we visited schools this year, there were so many stories about the loss of loved ones to COVID, depression, anxiety, and other emotional events that transpired in the lives of educators, students, and their families. We can choose to look the other way and not acknowledge that mental health and social-emotional learning are priorities that need our attention, time, and resources to build back better and stronger school communities. School leaders and teachers have expressed an interest and need for professional development that addresses:
- Parent engagement and activities to support students at home.
- Whole child approaches education.
- How to identify evidence-based SEL programs.
- How to assess a school or district’s readiness to implement SEL programs.
- How to identify the appropriate screener for your district or school.
- What types of data should be used to help teachers recognize students’ mental or emotional challenges?
- When to refer students for additional mental health or social-emotional support.
The Center for Student Achievement Solutions will be presenting this summer at the Inaugural 3-Day SEL Summer Institute August 3-5, 2022, in Cambridge Massachusetts at Harvard Graduate School of Education. This summer, you will have the opportunity to join urban, suburban, and rural districts and school teams to learn new evidence-based SEL strategies and solutions to address the needs of your school leaders, practitioners, students, and families.
We know for sure that the pandemic has impacted the lives of all, but what we don’t know is to what extent. We need to work together as an educational community to ensure that our schools are equipped to address all students’ academic, behavioral, mental health, and social-emotional needs. If you are ready to get started and learn more about our professional development and school transformation services, contact us and speak with one of our experts.
Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The missing piece: A national teacher survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates for CASEL.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405-432.
Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., Ben, J., & Gravesteijn, C. (2012). Effectiveness of school-based universal social, emotional, and behavioral programs. Do they enhance students’ development in the area of skill, behavior, and adjustment? Psychology and Schools, 49, 892-909.
Taylor, R., Oberle, E., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88, 1156–1171.
Weissberg, R.P. & Cascarino, J. (2013). Academic learning + social-emotional learning = national priority. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (2), 8-13.