The Intersection

Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

August 13, 2021

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and youth learn and apply prosocial skills. SEL supports students in developing self-confidence and cultivating strong decision-making, relationship-building, and emotional-management skills. SEL competencies typically fall into the following categories:

  • Self-awareness, like knowing your strengths and limitations
  • Self-management, like being able to stay in control and persevere through challenges
  • Social awareness, like understanding and empathizing with others
  • Relationship skills, like being able to work in teams and resolve conflicts
  • Responsible decision-making, like making ethical and safe choices

These are the skills that young people need in order to effectively recognize and manage emotions, follow directions, work well with others, plan and achieve goals, and make responsible short- and long-term life choices.

Research shows that the competencies students develop through SEL-focused education, such as developing interpersonal relationships and communication skills, are critical to both the teaching–learning process and that emotional well-being influences educational performance, learning, and development. Additionally, these are skills that contribute to success in postsecondary education and in the workplace. Recent studies have shown how crucial social and emotional competency are to an effective workforce. Moreover, SEL that targets cultural understanding, community-building, and collaborative problem-solving can shift school climate, prevent bullying, enhance effective communication, and reduce racial and socioeconomic learning inequities.

The Challenge

Universal SEL instruction has proven overwhelmingly beneficial in normal times, and now it is an urgent need. The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously introduced new stressors and removed comforting connections and routines in the lives of children, teens, and adults alike. In addition to the many students who have lost loved ones to the virus, students may be struggling with concerns about health and safety, social isolation, or the difficulties of learning remotely. They may worry about food insecurity or stable housing as unemployment rises. They may be carrying an added burden of anxiety amidst the increasingly tumultuous racial and political climate.

This ongoing stress and loss will predictably take a toll on mental health, social connections, and emotional well-being. Though research on the mental health effects of the pandemic is just beginning, early studies suggest large-scale challenges. In the U.S., 14 percent of parents in a national sample have reported worsening behavioral health for their children since the pandemic began, with that number increasing to 40 percent for a sample of children learning from home. Similarly, the CDC found that between April and October 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits increased for children and adolescents, as compared with the same time period in 2019. It is likely we will not know the full scale of COVID-19 mental health repercussions for months or years to come. There are pandemic-related universal impacts on mental health that aren’t necessarily clinically significant but can still influence students’ health, well-being, and capacity for learning. Therefore, incorporating SEL curricula in schools will be necessary to help mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic on children.

Policy Considerations

Support Adoption of SEL Standards Across Pre-K—12 Education | There is an urgent need for schools to adopt SEL across the education spectrum. Schools should consider collaborative efforts to include SEL standards, which could include learning about current SEL standards in different districts, identifying programs across grade levels, and organizing cross-sector SEL planning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has a program guide and a state tracker that provide guidance on current SEL efforts across the country. Schools should also consider including community organizations, such as churches, businesses, recreation centers, etc., in current SEL initiatives to help facilitate “whole child” development.

Invest in SEL Training for Teachers | Districts should consider providing SEL-specific training for classroom teachers. Incorporating SEL in teaching does not come naturally and there are specific competencies that teachers must include for it to be effective. Additionally, relying on school counselors is not sufficient for including SEL in schools and could create an unnecessary burden on other school personnel. Schools must make the full investment in SEL to see its benefits.

Develop SEL Implementation Guidance | Districts should also develop guidance and resources for districts to implement SEL standards. This might include lists of vetted practices, evidence-based curricula, and validated screening and assessment tools from which schools can select. State-level working groups might specify implementation best practices, along with trusted resources for support or consultation.

Align Financial and Human Resources to Support SEL | It will be important for states to allocate funding that districts can use to implement and scale evidence-based SEL curricula. This could include increasing funding for student support staff positions, which will be particularly critical in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, when a larger number of students are likely to need intensive social and emotional instruction, support, and intervention. Districts could also identify funding streams for co-location–the strategic placement of mental health providers within schools and workplaces—of mental health services within schools. Co-location greatly increases the likelihood that students will receive and complete counseling when they have mental health needs. States can accomplish these goals by leveraging federal funding streams, such as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds, to integrate SEL and evidenced-based practices into other district- and school-level initiatives.

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