Why Social-Emotional Learning Is Suddenly in the Spotlight
Growing up can be tough. As young people’s bodies and brains are changing rapidly, they’re also grappling with new ideas and influences that will shape who they become.
Kids today might actually have it worse, thanks to technology. They’re going through their awkward stages—the braces and bad haircuts and first crushes—on Instagram and Snapchat. And they’re trying to make friends while everyone’s noses are buried in their phones.
Research tells us these things are taking their toll. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey of kids aged 13 to 17 found that 7 in 10 teens think anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers. The same survey found that 6 in 10 kids feel pressure to get good grades while nearly 3 in 10 feel pressure to look good and fit in socially.
Dozens of recent studies tell a similar story. Students today are distracted, they’re under a lot of pressure and they’re suffering from mental health issues more than ever before.
The education community is increasingly getting involved in these issues, looping in social workers, licensed therapists and other mental-health services to help students who are struggling. They often talk about these things in the context of “caring for the whole child” or “teaching to the whole learner.” The idea is that, in order for kids to be successful academically, their other needs must be met, too. That includes their social and emotional needs.
In the last few years, terms like “whole child” and “social-emotional learning” have become buzzwords. They’re all over education conference agendas and making headlines in the news. But behind the buzzwords are programs, often led and managed by schools, that take into account all the different things a child needs to be able to learn and grow, even if those things reach outside the traditional roles of a school.
Earlier this year at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas, EdSurge sat down with Christina Cipriano, the director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a research scientist at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Cipriano thinks about and researches social-emotional learning every day, so she broke down for us what SEL is, where it comes and how it works.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become arguably one of the hottest topics in education in the last couple of years. For those who are still new to this topic, could you explain what SEL is and why it matters?
Christina Cipriano: Social-emotional learning is thinking about the competencies that underscore our ability to be available to learn and available to teach. There are a number of different frameworks that we use. One of the most dominant frameworks in the field is the CASEL five. It’s the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Those five competencies are self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.
When we think about social-emotional learning, we talk about how social-emotional competencies underscore your ability to learn and your ability to teach. These are skills that all people and all learners across the lifespan need to continuously develop and invest their time and energy in to be able to be positive contributors to their life and those around them.
Is this a new concept? Why does it seem like all of a sudden we’re hearing about SEL?
It is certainly not a new concept, and it’s been around in literature for over two decades. However, it’s recently gotten a lot of more air play as folks are realizing that whether you call it character education, peace building or conflict resolution, they all have foundations in the social-emotional learning frameworks and in that research base.
At our center we use the emotional intelligence science to underscore our framing of social-emotional learning. However, depending upon which research institution you talk to, you will see other ways of thinking about and framing the problem. At the end of the day, we’re talking about teaching people how to be better citizens and more positive contributors to their society. We realize it’s 2019, and that that is an important skill that everybody needs.
In what ways does SEL set up students for success that directly relates to academic learning—and also doesn’t?
A good example of this would be thinking about a student or adult’s ability to regulate your emotions or, as CASEL calls it, in managing yourself. We all have different triggers of stress throughout our life and different emotions that can hijack our body’s ability to be able to process the world meaningfully. If we’re not able to regulate or down-regulate in a given situation, we’re not able to be available to process the information of what we’re being taught.
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So, regardless of how fantastic your teacher may be or how incredible that science curriculum is at engaging and motivating you, if you have a student who’s dealing with stress or trauma or unable to kind of get over the interpersonal interaction they had right before they entered that classroom, or the trigger word that the teacher said, like “pop quiz,” that set them off into a spiral, they’re not going to be able to process the dynamic curriculum that’s being presented to them.
And so social-emotional learning really teaches and targets those skill sets and competencies that underscore your availability to learn. In our case, and in our work at the center, we focus on also thinking about the social-emotional learning of the adults in the room and the educators as the co-constructors of knowledge in that environment.
So if this was the first time that anyone’s ever mentioned this concept to me, maybe a question I would have is, “Well, that’s great, but it doesn’t sound like something you can teach.” How do you teach things like emotional regulation and relationship skills?
My immediate answer is that if you don’t think you can teach them, you have a fixed mindset and not a growth mindset. We need to be always open and available to learning through our interactions around us. The ways in which we teach these discrete skills depend upon the cognitive ability and development of the learner, and how they’re going to most access them. For instance, when we focus on emotion regulation, we’re thinking about students’ cognitive reappraisal abilities and their self-talk strategies.
Now, there’s a lot of different ways you can manage your emotions in a given situation. For some of us, like myself, you might want to go for a run to regulate, but not all schools are conducive to that. You can’t just get up and do that. When we worked with teachers, we found that they want to know how to teach those skills that they can focus on how students will reappraise the situation to make a situation more positive, problem-focused, challenge-based—so that they think about it as something they can solve, and how they’re talking to themselves. Really capture the essence of their self talk strategies in ways that are going to be most meaningful.
This doesn’t mean that you’re providing a pull-in lesson every week on Tuesdays at 3:00 p.m. to teach them how to reappraise their emotions, but rather that you are modeling those skills in the way that you interact with that student and with that learner before, during and after the situation, so that they’re continuously seeing and learning [that].
So it’s less about teaching it and more about naming it, addressing it and giving strategies to respond?
I would kind of reframe what you said there. I would say that that is teaching it. It’s the ability for us to be able to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate our emotions. That’s actually the acronym, RULER, that is our approach at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence for teaching these competencies. Going through that pattern of steps and having developmentally appropriate access points for all of our learners is the gateway in.
What did SEL look like before it kind of became this buzzword—before it was dominating SXSW EDU panels?
If you look back you’ll see conversations about character education, moral education in the school, about being a good citizen, conflict resolution programming—all pockets that begin to target social-emotional learning competencies.
When we even talk about SEL as a larger field, there is discrepancy—depending upon what researcher, practitioner or policymaker you speak to—on how they will define what competencies fall within it and where the limits of the skill set lie. That’s a bigger conversation in the field right now.
Alongside that discourse is also the conversation of how to adequately assess social-emotional learning. The most popular question that I get asked on a regular basis, weekly I will get an email from someone somewhere in the world who wants to know what the best SEL score is, what the best SEL score is. I set up a call and I have a nice conversation back about how well, you don’t want to assess SEL. Having a SEL score is a completely inappropriate way of thinking about it. You want to be thinking about what social-emotional competency you’re trying to assess, and what the most meaningful way to do that is.
That’s important, because if we’re not able to show that children and adults are learning using these programs and have outcomes that are meaningful, then this will unfortunately just become that thing that was and people will move their focus on in 10 to 20 years to the next big thing that comes into the space.
There’s an urgency among the SEL community to begin to create those data points and to find that assessment landscape so that this doesn’t turn into a conversation like we all unfortunately remember with No Child Left Behind policy, where standardized assessments came into the narrative and started to shift the focus of how programming was being offered in classrooms and created a culture of fear on test taking.
Who does SEL leave behind? What kind of students just aren’t being taken into account in these kind of programs?
That’s actually the purpose of the panel that I’m here at SXSW EDU giving with my colleagues today. We’re looking at all of your traditionally underserved student populations and their inability to access current SEL programming. We’re talking about children with specific learning disabilities and diverse learners, ethnic and racial minorities, children who are serviced in therapeutic settings, alternative environments, correctional facilities. So a real wide net of the “other” children in the story and thinking about how there may or may not be access points for them throughout the way our programs are currently structured.
An example I can give you is when we think about how we teach some of the well-known strategies for accessing and instructing social-emotional learning competencies like perspective taking and decision-making involve group discussion. If you have a child who has an auditory disability and you make sure that they have hearing aids, there is a translator, or there is sign language being used, that’s only a step in the right direction, because we know that when a classroom of students is talking or when group work is occurring that children can talk over one another and it can be difficult to follow social overtures. Similarly, a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder or emotional behavioral disturbances may not be able to pick up on those social cues, which is the driving force of how the curriculum is originally written. Finding ways to create flexibility within the essence of the program so that it’s not just the method of instruction but also how they can engage with the learning content is critical.
Unfortunately, there are few and far between examples of that level of full inclusivity across the kind of mainstream SEL programming to date.
For schools that don’t have the resources to build an intentional, aspirational SEL program, what are some things that educators can do that require minimal time and money to improve a school’s social-emotional supports?
First is becoming knowledgeable about what we’re talking about when we’re talking about SEL. I point people to the CASEL website and the wealth of resources that are available there through the national foundation to be able to access information and basic understandings of the frameworks and competencies, as well as how to implement a program in your school.
A second point is that it’s important for the leadership to invest in social-emotional learning as something that is important from the top down, not just the bottom up. In order to have students who are increasing in their social-emotional competencies you need to have teachers who feel like they’re available to teach, which means you need to focus on their psycho-social health and well being. Which means you need to focus on the leader, and their psycho-social health and well being.
When leaders are not bought in to the importance of it, this just becomes another thing to do that doesn’t stick and does not sustain, and that is the complete antithesis of what folks in the SEL field want to happen with social-emotional learning.