SEL Progress?

Students go to school to learn how to read and do math. Schools of course offer many other subjects like art, social studies, science, technology, engineering, computers, and physical education. But the schools have recently been threatened by the COVID-19 virus that has turned a medical emergency into a pandemic, and this has compounded the ongoing failure of schools to teach everyone to read, everyone to succeed in math, and everyone from loving the process of learning.

Educational reform is the process by which previous generations have suggested systemic changes to schools. The latest reforms in which schools increased literacy and math instruction shows no change in test scores over the last 40 years. We are now at an inflection point, where change again is needed, and several ideas are ready to go.

Social Emotional Learning

One of those ideas is the need for Social Emotional Learning, or SEL. Students were socially stricken by the pandemic and so were many of the rest of us. It is no secret to school teachers that our students have arrived back in classrooms dazed and confused. Some of what parents learned during the pandemic was how hard it is to teach! They also learned that having their children at home all day was incredibly taxing. Finally, they learned that teaching a subject requires a combination of academic learning, social emotional learning, and engagement. They were thrilled to see the schools open back up.

Superficial Fixes

Parents also learned that to teach well requires a deep understanding of learning and how social emotional learning supports increased academic achievement. Although teachers know this too, teachers learned that to teach with depth requires more systemic support for SEL in their classrooms. The systemic support that is now required is well beyond the superficial fixes that most schools employ. For example:

“It is definitely an advisory activity in my school. The activities are either really superficial or
feel like I’m being asked to lead a group therapy session I am not qualified for.”

Shellie Bryant, EducationWeek, November 16, 2022

“It’s going to vary school to school, district to district. But overall, SEL seems to be a trendy, check the box, weekly advisory lesson type of thing. Truly effective SEL needs to be cross curricular and facilitated to encourage true sue and growth. So far in my experience, SEL has been treated as an extra task by teachers, and a pointless waste of time by students. But it does so much to improve student growth and learning in and out of the classroom.”

Brian Talbot, EducationWeek, November 16, 2022

Deeper Fixes

If this era’s educational reform is to be successful, it must look to a deeper strategy for implementation, and a more transparent system of policies in both schools and classrooms. Deeper strategies include an individualized approach to what students need, a whole-school participation, and systemic approach to how everyone will benefit. For example:

  • “Use evidence-based practices”
  • “Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach”
  • “Embed SEL into both daily lessons and standard curriculum”
  • “Ensure everyone is involved, not just students”
  • “Develop strategies that address all student age groups”
  • “Be proactive by being more transparent about what is being taught”
  • From an article by Libby Stanford, EducationWeek, November 16, 2022

Student Centered

Policy fixes must also be less superficial and employ a deeper level that start with evidence-based practices. Researchers can help here by conducting better experiments on what works and for whom, while suggesting how to proceed in a student-centered way. FInally, the importance of SEL is that it supports all types of learners, but does so in a variety of ways, so we need to attend to the nuances of how to help all students feel welcome, supported, and engaged with successful learning.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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