Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Student Well-Being Opinion

5 Things to Know About Implementing Social-Emotional Learning

By Rick Hess — April 25, 2019 1 min read

The other day, I shared some cautionary thoughts by Robert Pondiscio warning that we not allow social and emotional learning (SEL) to enshrine therapy at the expense of academics. Well, at the same symposium where Robert offered that caution, Ross Wiener, vice president at Aspen and a commissioner of the Aspen Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, offered some complementary thoughts on what it takes to implement SEL in a way that values academics and avoids the things that Robert feared. I asked Ross if he minded my sharing his take, and he kindly agreed. Here’s what he had to say:

I was asked to talk about the "how" of implementing social-emotional learning in schools. Here are five key principles to keep in mind when thinking about implementation. First, effective SEL instruction involves many factors. The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development found that developing students' social-emotional and cognitive abilities rests on a three-legged stool: Students need explicit instruction in social-emotional knowledge and skills; opportunity embedded in academic instruction to practice and get feedback on social, emotional, and cognitive skills; and positive school climate as the context in which healthy social-emotional development can take root. The image of a three-legged stool is important because it conveys that each element is necessary to provide a stable foundation. Second, social-emotional development happens in the context of a school and the community it serves. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing students' social-emotional and cognitive competencies. This work should reflect and respond to the needs, assets, and aspirations of the students and families being served in a specific school community. Family, faith institutions, and community organizations also have primary roles in cultivating these competencies; schools should not seek to displace these institutions but act in partnership with them. This means some of the most important decisions need to be left to school teams—not prescribed by policymakers. To help land this work in schools, Aspen's first project building on the National Commission's final recommendations is an action guide for school leadership teams that we published with the UChicago Consortium for School Research, Student Achievement Partners, and others. Third, policy should prioritize conditions for learning, not individual, student-level skills. It won't surprise many parents or teachers that students' sense of safety, belonging, and purpose in school profoundly influences student engagement, effort—and learning outcomes. Focusing on school climate advances important equity goals by fixing responsibility at the school and system level rather than labeling students as having deficits. Moreover, school climate is riper for policy focus and investment because many validated measures of school climate already are in the field; this also buys time for developing better student-level assessments. Fourth, principal and teacher preparation, licensure, and supervision should emphasize educators' role in fostering social-emotional development. Teachers don't only convey content, they also influence students' engagement and persistence, behavior, and social-emotional skills. Turns out that these non-academic outcomes are even more predictive than test scores of high school graduation and other positive life outcomes, and teachers have as much or more impact on these non-academic measures. Somewhat counter-intuitively, there is only weak correlation between teachers who raise test scores and teachers who inspire students to deeply engage and invest in their learning, so we need policies that recognize and respect the multiple ways in which teachers advance student success. Fifth, assessments should be more like work that is valued outside of school. Out in the world, people care about what you know and they care about how you interact with them and with others, whether you can navigate teams and interpersonal dynamics, how well you handle critical feedback, etc. Employers consistently are putting social-emotional competencies and communication skills at the top of their lists of sought-after attributes of new employees. School is where a lot of this is learned (or not), and assessments of learning can and should more authentically model meaningful work. This is a challenge to standardized tests that have dominated under accountability policy, raising many important issues that will need to be addressed over time. Perhaps the recently robust focus on career-readiness creates a context for developing more relevant, more authentic assessments.

This strikes me as the kind of thoughtful, informed guidance that can help avoid the potential pitfalls that lie ahead for SEL. Now, I certainly am not sure I accept all of this. For instance, I’ve already got a raft of concerns about preparation and licensure, and I’m not at all optimistic about what happens if SEL gets folded in. But, I can wholeheartedly say that, if educators and community leaders take Ross’s advice to heart, the odds that the SEL push stays on the rails will markedly increase.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.