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Student Well-Being Opinion

7 Suggestions for the Champions of Social and Emotional Learning

By Rick Hess — April 15, 2019 1 min read
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Last week, over at Education Next, Checker Finn and I published an essay in which we offered some practical advice to the champions of social and emotional learning (SEL). We wholeheartedly agree with its advocates that a focus on SEL is sensible in its own right and a healthy corrective to some of the excesses of the No Child Left Behind era. And we further agree that an emphasis on SEL can and should complement an emphasis on academic mastery. Indeed, SEL’s champions have done an admirable job thus far of insisting that this is about academic development as well as social and emotional growth. So, there’s much to like.

But Checker and I have spent lots of years watching good ideas go south. With that in mind, we sketched seven suggestions that just might help SEL’s champions deliver on the idea’s promise. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to check the whole thing out—but here are some highlights:

Slow down and focus on getting it right. Approach SEL with the presumption that doing it well is more important than doing it swiftly. Any number of reforms have been brought down when they were used to justify goofy, half-baked, and poorly executed initiatives. While waves of reform tend to move at their own speed, a calibrated, disciplined push can be a powerful force for steering change onto a positive long-term path. Be clear about what SEL is and is not. One peril inherent in novelty and widespread ardor is how easy it can be to build momentum and win allies by offering an inclusive definition of the cause. This, of course, can make it all too easy for others to piggyback their own agendas. Given the raft of malarkey peddled by consultants, vendors, and education school faculty, it's vital to develop markers which signal what constitutes "good" SEL and what does not. Make sure that character and civic education loom large in the SEL portfolio. Many who fear that SEL is "squishy" and a potential distraction from academic instruction will be reassured if they see clear signals that among its core elements are character formation and preparation for responsible citizenship. Indeed, SEL can be a way to recover and propagate the emphases on qualities like virtue and integrity. Making schools safer is an appealing facet of SEL, so long as the point is student safety, not adult agendas. Kids who are at peace and able to get along with others are not likely to disrupt classrooms, bully peers, or defy teachers. This is another facet of SEL that is important and appealing to those who might otherwise dismiss it as touchy-feely. Now, some proponents seem invested in "restorative justice" as the way to do all this and inclined to overstate the evidence that it "works." The SEL community needs to be clear that the point is to help students feel safe and valued, and that they will apply the same standards of evidence even to strategies they like. Parental enthusiasm for SEL is healthy, but it ought not become a free pass for academic frailty. Parents are natural SEL allies for obvious reasons. They care deeply about the emotional well-being of their kids and about the climate of their schools. All that said, schools must be places of learning. While many advocates are already convinced that SEL and academics are inseparable, it's not clear that all their hangers-on agree. This makes it critical to keep loudly insisting that SEL must be tightly linked to a focus on children's academic learning. Make it a priority to develop valid, reliable, intuitive metrics for SEL—and be honest about their limits. It's important to develop outcome measures that feel credible to a broad swath of parents and educators. And, yet, some of what we most value in SEL may ultimately prove difficult to measure. School climate surveys are a start, but let's not kid ourselves. They share the vulnerabilities of all subjective "how do you think things are going" polls. When the evidence is shaky, SEL advocates need to forthrightly acknowledge the fact—not duck it or downplay it. Transparency and a willingness to continuously solicit feedback from skeptical students, parents, and teachers—not just supportive ones—can be a huge help. In celebrating "evidence-based" practices, be wary of analysts who give short shrift to how findings translate to the real world. Education researchers have an understandable proclivity to pursue work that gets funded, published, and rewarded. This encourages research that can yield definitive "causal findings" while discounting research into the messy stuff of "implementation." The result: Evidence-based recommendations can wind up being helplessly naive about how a promising approach will work in inhospitable environs. Those commissioning and engaging in SEL research should embrace inquiry that helps anticipate what can go wrong in the real world.

There are no guarantees when it comes to school improvement, of course, but decisions have consequences. As Checker and I put it, in closing the essay, “Social and emotional learning may become a durable pillar of American K-12 education. Or it may prove faddish, contentious, and evanescent. Which of those futures lies ahead depends in significant part on the choices made by supportive educators, advocates, policymakers, funders, and scholars in these early days of the SEL movement. We hope that they choose wisely.”

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.