By Nicole Larsen, CEI Intern
Social-emotional Learning (SEL) has been receiving an increased focus in education, with an expanding research base and related programming dedicated to using SEL to promote positive mental health and social interactions. Recent evidence shows that school-based SEL has many positive outcomes for students, including improvements in behavior and attitudes, lower levels of emotional distress, and improved academic performance (Durlak et al., 2011). However, not all SEL interventions are created equally, and SEL must ensure continuity and consistency to be effective (Jones & Bouffard, 2012). It is therefore important for teaching in this area to intentionally build through the school years, with earlier content laying the foundation for later interventions (Jones & Bouffard, 2012).
In schools, the most common approach to SEL is through structured programs which provide teachers with curriculum-based content for classroom instruction (Elias, 2010). There are many benefits of such SEL programs, as they provide clear structure and plans for teachers and are often backed up by empirical evidence showing their benefits (Jones & Bouffard, 2012). However, there are also many drawbacks to this approach. These programs are often very brief, offered as mini-lessons in weekly half hour or hour-long blocks and may be shortened or skipped due to pressure on teachers to focus on academic content (Jones & Bouffard, 2012).
Alignment in SEL Programs
It is often assumed that SEL programs slotted into these brief time slots can work effectively, and consideration is not given to how to integrate the content throughout the school day, or how the program fits into the overall scheme of a student’s learning (Elias et al., 2003). Indeed, most schools have a variety of different SEL programs and/or initiatives designed to support students’ social-emotional development, school culture, and classroom climate (Elias et al., 2003; NYSED, 2019). Teachers may implement more than one program in a year, with the focus on different areas of SEL, or there may be different programs in place at different grade levels. Unfortunately, there is often little consideration given to alignment between programs, meaning they may not share common theoretical or pedagogical approaches, or they may not adhere to the same trajectory for skill development (Elias et al., 2003). Such fragmentation can disrupt the continuity necessary for effective SEL, frustrating students’ learning and causing lower student engagement and staff morale (NYSED, 2019).
In addition to the different programs that may be in place in a school at one time, programs are often not sustained, meaning that even if the program was intended to provide continuity from year to year, this is often not the case in practice (Jones & Bouffard, 2012). A number of factors contribute to the challenge in sustaining SEL programs long-term, including changes in staff, annual budgets, and educational trends (Elias, 2010). Further, even when a school provides continuity through well-aligned, sustained SEL, different approaches between schools may provide challenges for later grade teachers trying to integrate students coming from different feeder schools (Elias et al., 2003).
This is a particular concern given the sheer number of SEL programs currently available for teachers to choose from. In fact, in the Program Guide released by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are 77 programs that meet their criteria for well-designed, evidence-based programs (CASEL, 2020). Given this plethora of options, it is clear that a great deal of time and planning is necessary to ensure alignment both within and between schools in order to provide continuity and consistency in SEL.
Coordination and Planning: Specific time and effort must be dedicated to multiyear and multilevel planning for SEL, with commitment to consistency and sustainability. Thought should be given to linking theoretical approaches, pedagogy, sequence, timing, and the specific needs of the student population (Elias et al., 2003). Additionally, it is important to consider how SEL should be addressed in a schoolwide context, to move SEL beyond the context of the classroom (Jones & Bouffard, 2012). Plans should start with assessment of the strengths and needs of the school or district in question. The Center for Educational Improvement has created the School Compassionate Culture Analytical Tool for Educators (S-CCATE) which is designed to help guide educator teams as they work to coordinate their approaches.
Integration: Ensuring the SEL is not limited to the curriculum-based programs that provide direct instruction in this area is essential. Research shows that teachers who effectively integrate SEL program content into their practice had students with more positive outcomes than those who limited content to the specific SEL lessons (Reyes et al., 2012). It is important for programs to be integrated not just with other classroom contexts, but throughout the school day. This requires concentrated effort over a period of years, but ensures sustainability and consistency in SEL (Elias, 2010).
Training: Teachers typically have little training in SEL, both in pre-service and professional development contexts (Jennings & Frank, 2015; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2017), and other staff members receive even less training and support in this area (Jones & Bouffard, 2012). In order to effectively coordinate and integrate SEL throughout the school day and across school levels, teachers and staff need ongoing training and support on the importance of SEL, effective SEL instruction, and how to set up supportive classroom climates and school cultures (Jones & Bouffard, 2012).
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Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020). CASEL program guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child development, 82(1), 405-432.
Elias, M. J. (2010). Sustainability of social-emotional learning and related programs: Lessons from a field study. The International Journal of Emotional Education, 2(1), 17-33.
Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Graczyk, P. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2003). Implementation, sustainability, and scaling up of social-emotional and academic innovations in public schools. School Psychology Review, 32 (3), 303-319.
Jennings, P. A., & Frank, J. L. (2015). Inservice preparation for educators. In J.A. Durlak, C.E. Domitrovich, R.P. Weissberg, & T.P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (pp. 422-437). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Jones, S. M., & Bouffard, S. M. (2012). Social and emotional learning in schools: From programs to strategies and commentaries. Social policy report, 26(4), 1-33.
New York State Education Department [NYSED]. (2019). Social emotional learning: A guide to systemic whole school implementation.
Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S.E., Elbertson, N.A., & Salovey, P. (2012). The interaction effects of program training, dosage, and implementation quality on targeted student outcomes for The RULER approach to social and emotional learning. School Psychology Review, 41(1), 82-99.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Kitil, M. J., & Hanson-Peterson, J. (2017). To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers: A National Scan of Teacher Preparation and Social & Emotional Learning. A Report Prepared for CASEL. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.