Educators and parents alike are constantly working to ensure students’ success. As the world changes all around us, so must our schools. K-12 education is frequently reimagined as new technology, ideas, and laws are introduced. As the new year begins, a powerful way of learning is gaining traction across the nation: social emotional learning (SEL).
WHAT IS SEL?
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as a process in which students grow and develop their lives and relationships. It focuses on creating a healthy, safe environment within five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These focus areas are intended to help people interact in more inclusive, healthy ways so they can tap their talents, have meaningful lives, and positively influence themselves, other individuals, and their communities.
SEL has received much criticism because it is often misunderstood. It is not at all about teaching students what to feel or think, but how. Teaching students to develop perspective, cognitive empathy (learning to see through the eyes of others), and affective empathy (developing a shared emotional response) will help them in everyday life for years to come.
WHY IS SEL SO IMPORTANT NOW?
SEL can advance students’ success after a time of extraordinary challenge like they are experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Emotional hurdles appear around every corner, and newsworthy tragedies are not unseen by children. What happens outside the classroom doesn’t just disappear when a student enters the building. Those feelings—confusion, fear, sadness—distract from learning and can build in damaging ways. Students need help navigating a unique level of burden to build necessary skill sets, keep themselves and others safe and healthy, and grow into the best versions of themselves.
Notably, there is a gap between students’ and parents’ concerns about managing emotions. Students may shy away from seeking help, while their parents may have substantial concerns about their kids’ well-being. An important factor of SEL is reshaping the perception that emotions are best hidden and encouraging students to be more open.
A 2021 survey found 50% of parents couldn’t receive mental health services during the novel coronavirus crisis, with 78% of parents saying education and health care systems need to improve. However, the survey also found parents are receptive to pediatric therapy, and 18% of parents already provide mental health support or counseling for their children. About 38% of public schools provide treatment to students for mental health disorders.
Although there is significant room for improvement, many adults already recognize the need for SEL is there. Today’s environment encourages more discussion about how to help kids and adults alike, so the normalization of SEL will likely increase. As SEL grows within schools across the country, classroom structure and teacher training will evolve. So, what can educators expect from this change?
BRINGING SEL INTO YOUR CLASSROOM
An important thing to understand about SEL is it should not be viewed as an individual lesson or scheduled section of each day. SEL is about educators first reshaping their own behaviors and approaches to teaching and then making changes that impact the entire school day overall. This is about total transformation, and it’s more than placing new ideas on the surface of traditional curriculum. Weave it throughout.
Some examples of SEL practices include holding morning meetings, daily check-ins, encouraging journal writing, playing games that encourage teamwork, talking about emotions as a class and more. Students could also discuss current events and leaders to learn by example and relate admirable qualities to their own lives.
A common misconception of SEL is it cannot fit within the core curriculum. This is simply untrue. The principles and goals of SEL can be related to pre-existing curriculum, whether it’s math, science, language arts—any subject can offer a corresponding SEL lesson. For example, as students learn to work through math problems, teachers could emphasize skills like self-determination, not being afraid to ask for help or managing negative feelings when the work is challenging.
THE FUTURE OF SEL
Before the ESSER and the CARES Act, only 1% of schools formally included SEL in their budget. However, the 2020 CARES Act provided $13.2 billion to elementary and secondary schools and districts to address Covid-19’s impact, and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included $123 billion for K-12 state education agencies. This means good news for SEL. At least 20% of district funds must be used to address learning loss through evidence-based interventions that support students’ academic and SEL needs. As funding increases, more schools may hire dedicated personnel for SEL. Overall, though, SEL training will presumably be integrated into general teaching practices and standards rather than highlighted with specific certifications or degrees.
AS SEL GROWS, SO WILL A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR OUR KIDS
The integration of SEL within standard practices is still in its early stages. Nevertheless, students today are in a challenging environment where SEL can be especially beneficial. Teachers can model and include SEL in the classroom by connecting it to other lessons throughout the day, so it feels natural and becomes a normalized way of thinking. With proper implementation, it can help students reach their highest potential. As we continue facing obstacles as a society in 2022, be proactive about starting the SEL journey within your classroom and claim this priceless benefit.
Alice Lee is the Senior Vice President, K-12 Implementation at EVERFI