Student Well-Being

Pandemic, Racial Justice Fuel Surge in Demand for Social-Emotional Learning

By Arianna Prothero — October 22, 2021 4 min read
Danielle Myers leads her 4th grade class in a mindfulness exercise at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania on Dec. 2, 2020.
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The pandemic and rising concerns about racial justice over the past year and a half have fueled a surge in school district interest in and spending on social-emotional learning, according to a new report.

District spending on SEL programming grew about 45 percent between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, from $530 million to $765 million. That increase coincided with a dramatic shift among teachers’ and school and district administrators’ priorities away from academic achievement and testing and toward students’ mental health, the report says.

But the report—written by the consulting firm Tyton Partners and published in collaboration with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional learning, or CASEL—warns that in schools’ rush to expand social-emotional learning, little consensus has evolved about what quality programs should look like.

The report draws its conclusions from a survey of more than 100 SEL providers and a survey of over 2,000 teachers and school and district administrators.

When asked in the survey to rank their top priorities prior to COVID-19 versus during the pandemic, improving students’ mental health and promoting students’ social-emotional competence rose to the number 1 and 2 priorities listed by administrators and teachers. Improving school diversity, equity, and inclusion was listed as the 3rd highest priority, up from number 8.

Prior to the pandemic, administrators and teachers said their top priorities were improving student performance on standardized tests, and increasing the number of college-ready and career-ready graduates.

A majority of survey respondents cited the pandemic and a greater focus on racial injustice as driving the rise in interest in social and emotional learning in their schools. Among school and district leader respondents, around three quarters said they either slightly agreed or strongly agreed that COVID-19 had accelerated interest in SEL in their school or district. About 65 percent of respondents said the same of racial injustice and the need for racial equity.

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Conceptual image of students interacting.
Mary Haasdyk for Education Week

That rising interest has been even more pronounced for the middle and high school grades, the survey found. Schools are investing much more in SEL curriculum, program implementation, professional development for staff, measurement, and technical assistance in secondary schools, compared with before the pandemic.

“As schools and districts expand their grade 6-12 implementation, and providers follow suit with their offerings, it will be important for the field to evolve best practices to best meet the needs of older students,” write the report’s authors.

Can the SEL marketplace rise to meet the growing demand?

Quality in the SEL marketplace may not keep pace with demand, the report warns. And while awareness of SEL is high, administrators and teachers are not as familiar with popular SEL standards and frameworks.

“[In] the push to rapidly address these important issues, it is tempting for schools and districts to unintentionally implement half-measures, or low-quality measures, that are masquerading as high quality ones (whether intentionally or unintentionally),” the report’s authors write.

There are many different social-emotional learning frameworks for standardizing what SEL should look like when implemented in a school. Among the most popular are CASEL’s core SEL competencies, the Emotional Intelligence model, and 21st Century Skills.

Among the survey respondents, 90 percent were broadly aware of what SEL is, but only 40 percent of school respondents and 60 percent of district respondents were aware of the most popular SEL frameworks.

There are a surprisingly large number of different frameworks considering the SEL marketplace is a mature one, say the report’s authors. Furthermore, the field does not seem to have coalesced around a common concept of what quality SEL looks like.

Quality control issues are common with fast-growing markets, the report says, in part because growth beckons low-quality providers to enter. And when high-quality providers cannot meet fast-growing demand, low-quality providers fill in the gap.

In the report’s survey of SEL suppliers, only 37 percent of those surveyed have conducted third-party quantitative studies of the effectiveness of their programs or products with a comparison group.

Looking ahead, the report flagged additional issues around managing the demand for social-emotional learning programs.

Schools and districts are relying too heavily on federal funds that will run out to pay for their social-emotional offerings. Federal relief dollars were tied for the second most-used funding source to support SEL in districts along with Title I money and projected to be the top funding stream next year.

SEL providers, meanwhile, need more sustainable funding models as they currently are too reliant on philanthropic dollars over program service fees, the report notes.

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