Keeping Social and Emotional Learning S.A.F.E. and Successful

If you’ve spent any time around the education sector in the last several years, then you’ve probably come across the term “social and emotional learning,” or, SEL for short. In non-ed-speak, SEL simply refers to the process through which children, youth, and adults acquire and apply the competencies needed to navigate pretty much any and all life scenarios.

In other words, SEL is the way we build the foundation for a successful life—academically, professionally, and interpersonally. SEL is how we learn critical thinking, effective communication, emotional recognition and regulation, teamwork, perseverance, and so many other skills. It’s a lifelong process and it happens in every context, from the classroom to a part-time job to friendships.

Because humans are social animals, we come into this world primed for SEL. But while we might be primed for acquiring those skills, like any competency, environmental factors can help or hinder their development.

Struggle as Opportunity, or How You SEL

Back in 2012, NPR published an article looking at how different cultures view learning. Psychologist Jim Stigler noted that when he was a graduate student researching teaching methods, he went to Japan to see if there were cultural differences between how we teach here in the U.S., and how they teach in Japan. Sitting in on a math class opened his eyes. In Japan, math was a lesson in perseverance as much as it was a lesson in academics. If a student was struggling with a concept, the entire class would turn their attention to that student and stick with them while they struggled through the problem—until they got it right. At which point the entire class would erupt into applause.

What he’d seen teaching in the States contrasted with this approach. Here, he said, struggle is seen “as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory.” He even noted that a struggling student would almost never be called to the front of the class to solve a problem; instead, the students who “get it” are chosen.

The key difference in approaches and success? A culture of perseverance and a growth mindset. In other words, SEL not smarts.

That’s why in the last five years there’s been an emphasis on looking at how learning environments, from classrooms to after-school programs, can more intentionally nurture young people’s SEL abilities.

The Trick is in Implementation

SEL has been linked to positive outcomes for young people in everything from academics to long-term physical and emotional well-being, but we’re only just beginning to understand how you intentionally work towards those outcomes.

Much of what we’re learning is thanks to a new series by Stephanie Jones at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Easel Lab. Commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, Navigating Social and Emotional Learning from the Inside Out, examines 25 widely used SEL programs, providing comprehensive information and cross-program analyses about in-school and out-of-school-time programs currently available in the United States.

In the latest brief from this series, Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation, Jones and her team give us perhaps the clearest picture yet of what can make or break SEL outcomes within programming.

A growing body of research emphasizes the importance of effective implementation. One large-scale review of prevention programs found that in more than 500 studies, implementation practices had an important impact on program outcomes.

Research also indicates that high-quality implementation is positively associated with better student outcomes. Moreover, disorganized approaches to SEL programming have been shown to have negative effects on staff morale and student engagement, and therefore may risk doing more harm than good.

It’s a must-read for any after-school, summer, or expanded-learning systems builder interested in focusing on SEL outcomes for their participants, but we’ll get you started with our two key takeaways.

Takeaway #1: Keep it S.A.F.E. and Then Some

Research shows that the most effective SEL programs incorporate four “S.A.F.E.” elements:

  1. Sequenced activities that lead in a coordinated and connected way to skill development;
  2. Active forms of learning that enable young people to practice and master new skills;
  3. Focused time spent developing one or more social and emotional skills;
  4. Explicitly define and target specific skills.

But Jones and her team make the point that SEL is about more than just using the SAFE framework. Their research has shown that a few more ingredients need to be added before you see true SEL success.

First, you need to make sure that SEL efforts are happening within a supportive context. Focusing on building confidence, for example, would be extremely difficult in a context where bullying is present, or where adult communication isn’t respectful of young people.

Speaking of adults, that brings us to Jones’s second point. Remember how we mentioned that SEL is a lifelong process that adults continue to engage in? Jones notes that another element of successful SEL builds adult competencies, and includes promoting teachers’ own social and emotional competence and supporting the ongoing integration of SEL-informed pedagogical skills into everyday practice.

Similarly, because SEL isn’t “teachable” in the way that we’ve come to understand the term (e.g. you can’t sit a child down and give them a textbook or a step-by-step guide to perseverance), it takes the whole village. So partner with communities and families!

This includes taking into consideration the environments and contexts in which children learn, live, and grow by building family-school-community partnerships that can support children at home and in other out-of-school settings, fostering culturally competent and responsive practices, and considering how specific educational policies may influence children.

Because it takes a whole village, and indeed a lifetime, to hone SEL skills, it also makes sense for anyone trying to implement SEL to focus in rather than cast a wide net. Target key behaviors and skills in developmentally appropriate ways across multiple domains of development: “emotional processes, social/interpersonal skills, and cognitive regulation or executive function skills.” From there, set reasonable goals and outcomes aligned to the particular effort.

Takeaway #2: Curriculum is Only Half the Battle

So now say you have a SAFE+ framework and evidenced-based curriculum; you’re ready for successful SEL implementation, right? Wrong.

Implementation is its own strategy and all of the curriculum in the world won’t make it successful unless you consider the right conditions to effectively implement SEL programming.

Looking at the above chart, you might notice that the first key feature listed has to do with time—that tricky dimension. For SEL skill development—like all skill development—to be effective, there must be enough time devoted to SEL programs. Short lessons as part of a larger class or program subject won’t do the trick. However, intentionally and seamlessly integrating SEL with academic and other programmatic content can be very effective. The best thing about SEL is that it can be incorporated into math, reading, sports, art, and pretty much any discipline.

Remember that piece about partnering with communities and families? That’s because SEL needs to extend beyond the classroom or program. Jones specifies:

When selecting a program or strategies and planning for implementation, schools and organizations should be intentional about providing continuous, consistent opportunities to build and practice these skills across settings, including through connections at home and in the community.

Applying SEL strategies transparently and in real-time is what takes the process from “SEL happens” to “SEL happens well.” To strengthen their SEL skills, young people need to be able to practice those skills in real life situations…again and again. Sort of like how building your confidence as a public speaker only happens by facing your fear and getting behind a podium…again and again and again in mirror in a mirror forever.

Jones gives an example of how this could look for SEL, saying “a teacher might scaffold students to use specific conflict resolution skills during a disagreement on the playground.”

This might sound simple, but it requires a lot of training for the adults implementing the program. SEL skills are pretty unconscious for most of us, so having them and teaching them are two totally different balls of wax. Teachers, program providers, and any adult participating in SEL implementation should receive sufficient training and support, as well as ongoing professional development.

Part of ensuring SEL is happening in a safe and supportive context is ensuring that there’s adequate program buy-in from the grassroots and grasstops.

When making decisions about SEL programming, it is important to include staff and other key stakeholders. In addition, schools and organizations should select programming that is developmentally and culturally aligned to the needs of their students.

Finally, data is a crucial aspect of effective SEL implementation. Without it, programs would be flying blind with regard to whether their approach suits the context, addresses the specific challenges they’re trying to solve, and whether the approach works at all. Jones notes that even simple tools and data, like school/program climate surveys can help make informed decisions about programming, and monitor implementation and results.

Students Aren’t Blank Slates

For a while, conversations about SEL revolved around how young people, especially young people from low-income communities, needed to develop SEL competencies like “grit” and “resilience,” to succeed academically. Thankfully, those conversations have given way to a much more positive and holistic understanding of SEL that isn’t deficit-focused, but growth-focused.

As Marlyn Torres from the New York Life Foundation emphasized at our Every Hour Counts ten-year convening in 2016, young people come to the table with a whole array of social and emotional strengths that don’t need to be built from scratch. Rather, adults in their lives need to understand how to help them channel their existing strengths in a positive way while creating environments where they can continue to nurture and build on their own inherent skills.

Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation gets all of us adults several steps closer to realizing that vision.

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