Professional Development

Irrelevant, Too Conceptual, Boring: Social-Emotional Learning PD Often Falls Flat

By Arianna Prothero — December 07, 2022 4 min read
Hand of a trainer addressing group of females sitting in a conference hall.
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Ask anyone who oversees social-emotional learning for their school district, and they will tell you that professional development is a key part of that work.

Teachers and principals need training on how to teach students what are often referred to as soft skills outside of education—such as emotional management, perspective taking, and goal setting—and they may even need some help fine tuning their own skills.

The problem is that many educators give the professional development they’ve received around social-emotional learning lackluster marks, according to a recent survey of educators by the EdWeek Research Center. Less than half, 47 percent, said it was “somewhat effective” and only 12 percent described it as “very effective.”

And insufficient PD was the second most cited challenge among educators when asked what the biggest barriers to teaching social-emotional learning are.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to David Adams, the chief executive officer of the Urban Assembly, a school support nonprofit that focuses on social-emotional learning. He said professional development around social-emotional learning can easily become too conceptual.

“I think the big challenge is that folks are really focusing on learning environments that are supportive, folks are focusing on high quality interactions,” he said. “But less on developing skills that translate beyond the schools. We’re seeing a lot of focus on relational context, but less so on the actual skill development.”

Almost a quarter—24 percent—of the teachers, principals, and district leaders who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said their PD, or the SEL training their teachers received, was either somewhat or very ineffective. Another 17 percent said they did not receive any professional development to teach social-emotional skills. That means more than 4 of every 10 educators are not receiving the professional development they need to effectively teach SEL skills.

What good professional development should look like

While supportive environments are very important to fostering social-emotional learning, Adams emphasized that students need direct instruction in social-emotional skills that they can take with them into the workforce.

High quality PD, Adams said, starts with identifying the specific skills students can learn, practice, and transfer into the world beyond school.

“This PD will be about how to develop emotional awareness in students,” he said. “There’s a component to practicing it, and there is a component to integrating it into content in a very specific way.”

For example: professional development should address how an English/language arts teacher or history teacher might first teach students about emotional awareness, and then how to translate that skill into an academic concept, such as how emotional awareness can help them connect with a character in a book or in history.

Teachers also need to hone their social-emotional skills, said Adams, not just to teach those skills to students, but to improve their teaching in other ways.

Social-emotional skills like perspective taking and reading social cues are particularly important for teachers to develop in themselves.

“When you’re giving feedback to a student academically, you have to attend to misconceptions … you have to see an assignment from a student perspective,” he said. “One key concept is pacing, how fast am I going? Are teachers really paying attention to the social cues of students, are they getting frustrated or still engaged?”

Educators need training in how to teach specific social-emotional skills in their subject areas, how to create a positive classroom climate where students feel comfortable sharing, and in SEL terminology, said R. Keeth Matheny, a former teacher who provides SEL professional development for schools as the founder of SEL Launchpad. Having a common language is vital to communicating about students’ struggles and progress.

Teachers also value professional development from other teachers, or people who have taught in the classroom relatively recently, Matheny said, especially when it comes to addressing learning and behavior in schools coming out of the pandemic.

Many school and district leaders should already know what good PD looks like if they stop to think about it, said Matheny: It looks like good teaching.

The presenter should be engaging, create a warm and welcoming climate, give participants an opportunity to practice, and use pedagogical tools such as think, pair, share, he said. But, too often, professional development doesn’t look like that.

“One thing people don’t realize is that teaching social-emotional skills is a new curriculum. Imagine taking a math teacher and asking them to teach English, they would need training,” Matheny said. “Too often, we think these are life skills that everyone should be able to do, we assume that every educator should be able to teach this. But many people don’t have these skills, and even if they do, having the skills and teaching the skills are different things.”

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