For Social-Emotional Learning to Move Beyond Buzzwords, It Must Start with Educators
After decades of attempts at education reform that have done little to improve the education system in this country, many teachers and school leaders are loath to entertain yet another shiny, “promising” idea. But the reality is the U.S. education system finds itself at the center of converging crises that demand change. The upheaval of this moment in history presents a unique opportunity to rebuild, but in the face of so much turmoil and uncertainty, schools need reform that attends to the full community’s needs and builds a stable foundation of trust for educators, families and students.
Social-emotional learning, or SEL, entered the education spotlight as a promising approach a number of years ago. Decades of research present clear evidence that SEL produces a range of benefits, including positive social behavior, improved academic performance and decreased drug use. SEL also makes intuitive sense to educators, who often understand—from firsthand classroom experience and building student connections—the importance of skills that extend beyond academic confines.
Schools and districts nationwide have readily adopted “SEL” as a concept and term—it’s one of the shiny objects to appear during the pandemic—but few have realized its full, stabilizing potential, which emerges when it is integrated into all corners of a community. Yet the promise of SEL has not faded. When done right, it can transform schools and lives.
Moving Beyond Buzzwords Starts with Adults
On the surface, the growing interest in SEL is a huge step forward. After all, SEL is empirically good for kids. But the history of education reform in the United States has been beset by half-implemented agendas with superficial outcomes, leaving many educators tired and jaded at even the mention of a new or “innovative” approach.
In my first year of teaching, I remember a 20-year veteran educator telling me: “Things change every year. I just close my door and teach.”
Later, in graduate school, I took a course titled “History of School Reform.” My professor introduced the course by saying, “Many of you take a passionate approach to this work. I take an ironical one.” What he meant was, given his expertise, he was deeply cynical about positive, enduring reform.
Inquiring minds who examine the growing SEL movement may find what American education researcher Tony Bryk has called “Christmas tree” schools—those that habitually decorate themselves with new curriculum and rhetoric, but remain structurally unchanged. Especially in communities where education systems have historically propagated estrangement and distrust—oftentimes in low-income neighborhoods and among communities of color—educators and families are justified to scrutinize or roll their eyes at any new buzzword or talk of "reform."
Throughout my career as both an educator and researcher, I’ve seen schools roll out SEL programs with varying degrees of success. Differences in outcomes often boil down to approach. Rather than pushing top-down, prescriptive initiatives (the implementation of teacher evaluations has provided many recent examples of such reform approaches), schools that see progress from SEL implementations are the ones that engage educators with ongoing, purposeful, work-embedded support and training. They pair that with whole-school policies and practices that build a foundation of trust among staff and students.
When educators thrive, students thrive. My recommendation to schools is to first make sure the adults feel heard, cared for, and supported in strengthening their own social-emotional competencies. Only then can teachers model social-emotional competencies and authentically coach students as they develop their own.
Above all else, education leaders need to establish high-trust environments in their schools. Such environments can be developed through nurturing a shared vision, effective communication, distributed leadership practices and choosing professional development approaches that promote relationship-building. Leaders may begin this work by implementing an SEL program for adults that helps staff members build trust, manage stress and attend to equity.
In high-trust environments, regularly scheduled opportunities for staff to share their experiences and talk through their emotions can help leaders continuously monitor and productively respond to educator SEL. Keeping adult SEL in mind, educators and students will then benefit from collaboration to promote a whole-school strategy that acknowledges and respects differences, using a common language to talk about social-emotional needs. That’s a recipe for success.
The Power and Promise of SEL
As we begin to recover from recent events and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, many in the education field see an opportunity for a real renaissance. And SEL has been central in conversations about schools’ priorities, even among the most jaded. Many education leaders are reconsidering their systemic approaches, and some are calling to “reclaim” SEL’s power and promise.
We have an opportunity in this period of disruption to reflect, listen and apply lessons learned. If we do, I’m optimistic that we can escape the ed reform vortex and leverage SEL to create education systems that more consistently, equitably and holistically support all educators and children.