SEL Skills Are More Vital Than Ever. Here’s How to Choose the Right Tools.

Jul 08, 2020

In January, our team published a report on social-emotional learning research that has taken on new importance during the past few months. Written in partnership with New Schools Venture Fund, the report sought out practices that lead to positive outcomes for students learning skills, such as goal setting, relationship building and independence.

Since this paper was originally published, the worldwide spread of COVID-19 has changed the educational landscape into an entirely different space—one that we find ourselves only marginally prepared to educate children in, and a space where social-emotional skills are more important than ever.

Millions of students have been home for months now and are unwitting participants in a real-time distance learning experiment. Parents and teachers are doing the best they can in these circumstances, but there are so many obstacles in the way—from equity issues such as having enough to eat and reliable internet connectivity to the new emotional landscape created by these drastic shifts. Even once the immediate threat of the pandemic has passed, students will inherit the legacy of deep rooted unexpected physical and emotional traumas.

The social fabric and security of students’ lives has been entirely upended. To an adult, missing a graduation ceremony may seem trivial in the face of a pandemic. But to a student, this is the culmination of their life’s academic and social world up to this point.

This is all to say that we are living in a deeply stressful time where we are literally drawing the map of how to move forward. While there is not specific research on the best practices for supporting students through a pandemic and its attendant stressors, there is information on how to navigate choosing the best tools to teach social-emotional learning, which is an increasing priority for people of all ages.

In pre-COVID-19 times, SEL was just starting to gain nationwide traction as a critical component of K-12 education. The outcomes are clear—students who have learned social-emotional skills attain greater academic success than those who have not. And intuitively it follows that if a child can develop the skill of recognizing and regulating her emotions, that’s going to help her succeed well beyond academics.

After reviewing over a hundred articles, reports and whitepapers, we pulled together essential findings that shed light on promising practices when it comes to creating or evaluating social-emotional, or SEL, tools. Our initial report was written for edtech developers. But as a team of former teachers, we can see how valuable this information is for educators and decision makers who are struggling to choose effective and appropriate SEL tools amidst a rapidly expanding marketplace—especially now, when the stakes are even higher and the technology needs are even more specific.

Specifically, the research we studied indicates that students are more likely to experience positive outcomes when the tools used for social-emotional learning:

  1. Prioritize teacher learning in addition to student learning.
  2. Incorporate learning experiences that are Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit (aka SAFE).
  3. Take a developmental approach to organizing content and presenting learning opportunities.

There are many contextual factors that influence the outcomes when a district begins using a new program or product—including leadership support, professional development and competing priorities. Yet based on our review of the research, it is clear that the combination of a strong plan for implementation, along with evidence of best practices within these feature areas, can increase the likelihood that schools and districts will get the most bang for their buck when choosing an SEL tool. For each of these feature areas, we recommend that teachers and decision makers look for evidence of the specific research-based best practices detailed in the next three sections.

You can’t teach something you haven’t practiced

As a public school student in the ‘90s, I did not receive any direct SEL instruction, nor was my social-emotional development supported in my undergraduate coursework or my teacher training program. If I were to go back into the classroom today, I would benefit from explicit instruction about the ways to engage in healthy social-emotional living as an adult, as well as best practices for teaching SEL to my students. Most of today's teachers are in a similar situation; SEL was not an explicit part of their school experience. The research backs this up: explicit teacher education is often crucial to the success of new SEL programs. When looking at new solutions, consider teacher learning on two fronts:

Teach social-emotional skills to adults, so that they can teach students. We cannot expect the kids to learn a new skill until the grown-ups have a good handle on how to model it! Prioritize tools that help teachers develop their own social-emotional skills and support them to build healthy social-emotional habits. Specifically, look for tools that support teacher development of the skills that will be addressed by the learning resource that will be adopted.

Provide professional learning experiences for teachers that help them understand how to use the new learning resources. In this case, prioritize tools that offer well-designed professional development. Look for professional development that is collaborative, hands-on and ongoing over an extended timeframe. Make use of your excellent teachers, instructional coaches and administrators to further support professional learning.

For example, if teachers will be responsible for teaching students to notice and name emotions as they arise during conflict, teachers must first be taught how to do this and be given opportunities to practice this skill and reflect on their progress. Social-emotional learning is not like math or language. You can feel secure in your knowledge and skills in the morning only to have them evade you later that same day. Ever try to engage in emotional regulation when you are hungry? Exhausted? Overworked? These things develop with consistent practice over time. In this way, social-emotional learning is more like strengthening a muscle than it is mastering a standard.

If and when teachers have some social-emotional foundation, they will then benefit from professional learning experiences that help them to understand how a given tool will be used to support students in developing this skill.

Social-Emotional Learning is SAFE

Relative to traditional academic subjects, there is less common knowledge about what is needed for SEL instruction. In math, for example, we look for elementary programs that include manipulatives and opportunities for students to demonstrate their thinking. In language arts, we look for activities that allow students to critically engage with fiction and nonfiction texts. Only in the past few years have states have begun adopting their own sets of SEL competencies. And because of this, what is accepted as good practice often varies by context.

So, what should you look for in an SEL tool? While this is still playing out in terms of education policy, a look at the research can help answer this question. It turns out, there is a handy acronym from University of Chicago researcher Joseph Durlak that sheds some light on the qualities of SEL curriculum that tend to promote positive outcomes.

Look for tools that make SEL instruction SAFE. Effective social-emotional learning is Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit. This means that tools offer learning experiences that are intentionally ordered, active/interactive, provide ongoing focus on essential topics and explicitly instruct students on these topics.

Many solutions excel in some areas of SAFE while glossing over others. Given this, it is important to keep in mind that the research indicates the importance of each criteria being covered by a single tool or program.

The SAFE method for choosing social-emotional learning tools. (Source: MBZ Labs)

Follow the yellow brick road

In the “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy follows a particular pathway to get home and she does so while making good friends and uncovering lasting truths based on her journey. This hero’s journey has all the same characteristics as a research backed SEL tool. Dorothy develops healthy relationships, finds support in caring adults and follows a known path to learn what defines her. When evaluating SEL tools, look for the “Wizard of Oz” filter.

Put the social in social-emotional learning. Social-emotional development is more social than traditional academic instruction. Prioritize tools that foster healthy interactions among students and their peers, teachers, parents, and/or other supportive members of the community.

Consider known learning progressions. Good Glinda says, “It’s best to start at the beginning.” The same is true for SEL. Several social-emotional skills are known to be stepping stones for other more complex skills, indicating that for some aspects of social-emotional development, there may be common progressions of skills. Look for tools that “follow the yellow brick road” by drawing on age, developmental level, personal experiences and prior knowledge. If a tool is designed to teach SEL, be sure that it introduces skills in a way that follows developmentally appropriate sequences.

For more on learning progressions, we highly recommend checking out the Building Blocks for Learning framework by Turnaround for Children. They have an interactive infographic and whitepaper that can help readers see which social-emotional skills are foundational and which can be considered higher-order social-emotional skills. With this in mind, we can find tools that support our students in building from early stepping stones like attachment and self awareness to skills such as perseverance, independence and their own unique and lasting identities.

We know educators’ inboxes are bursting with unread emails from companies offering the newest, greatest thing. This is a pivotal moment in education, and many companies are desperate to sell their products as a panacea.

Source: MBZ Labs. Find the full version here.

Hopefully, understanding the research behind what makes an effective SEL product can help you make decisions that are going to benefit students and help to equip them with necessary skills to cope in the trying times to come. While the exact shape of the future may be uncertain, you can make an educated guess about how things may play out for this coming school year. Likely, there will be a combination of distance and in-person learning, and the physical ways that students experience school will be a very different experience.

A good SEL tool will help students to adapt, but only if it works in your context. As best you can, take an inventory of what your needs and resources are before assessing available tools. Prioritize a strong alignment between your objectives and the content and features of the tool you are considering. Beware the marketing messages that are aimed at solving all of your problems, and instead weigh the specific evidence of effectiveness, and filter choices based on the research backed criteria for teacher learning. By understanding the limitations of your context and leveraging your understanding of these essential considerations, you are well equipped to make decisions that can make a real difference in the lives of children in this historic time.


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