Student Well-Being

Principals Like Social-Emotional Learning. Here’s Why Schools Struggle With It

By Evie Blad — November 07, 2017 4 min read
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School leaders see students’ social and emotional development as important factors in school success but, in a nationally representative survey of principals, just 35 percent of respondents said their school was fully implementing a plan for incorporating social-emotional learning into policies and classroom work.

Principals reported several barriers to putting social-emotional learning strategies into place, including a lack of time, inadequate teacher training, and a need for further evidence of its link to academic success.

The findings of the survey—administered to 884 public school principals by Civic Enterprises and Hart Associates on behalf of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—mirror anecdotal reports from school leaders and teachers around the country in recent years.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is a field that focuses on nurturing students’ growth in areas like relationship skills and self control by changing schoolwide policies, using direct instruction on those skills, and the incorporating those skills into traditional classroom lessons in subjects like math and reading.

While the field has attracted broad interest in recent years, administrators who are interested in SEL have told Education Week that it can be difficult to know where to start when putting it into action.

Although “interest in social and emotional learning is overwhelmingly high, principals and administrators are hungry for the expertise necessary to adopt new strategies,” CASEL co-founder Tim Shriver, former Michigan Gov. John Engler, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in a letter accompanying the survey results. The trio co-chairs a national commission on students’ social, emotional and academic development convened by the Aspen Institute.

“In some ways, there is a tension in the data: while the vast majority of leaders believe that social and emotional development is essential to education, the pathway to change is not always clear; moreover, the time and training to make the necessary changes are in short supply,” the letter states. “These experts tell us that there is a lot of will, but not as much clarity and support, along the way.”

Among the survey’s findings:

  • 72 percent of principals who responded said their school district places a fair amount or a great deal of emphasis on developing students’ SEL skills, but only 40 percent reported that their district leadership requires all schools to have a clear plan for teaching social and emotional skills.
  • Only 25 percent of principals who responded could be considered “high implementers of SEL,” according to CASEL’s benchmarks. “In school districts where district leaders place a high level of emphasis on SEL, principals are more likely to score high on SEL implementation,” the report found.
  • Respondents were largely convinced that SEL skills can be measured, but just 24 percent are using some form of measurement, and just 17 percent said they were “very or fairly” familiar with existing forms of measurement.
  • While more than three quarters of respondents supported using SEL measurement for things like program evaluation and sharing data with parents, just 49 percent agreed or strongly agreed that such measurements should be used in teacher evaluations. That response comes as some scientists in the field have urged caution about the use of SEL measurement for high-stakes purposes.
  • While 83 percent of respondents said improved school climate would be a “very major benefit” of implementing social-emotional learning in their schools, just 61 percent said it would be a “very major benefit” to improving results on students’ academic coursework.

Supporting Teachers to Implement Social-Emotional Learning

Respondents reported a lack of time and teacher training as major barriers to carrying out SEL in their schools, as this chart from the report shows.

This is not a surprising finding. A survey of teacher-preparation programs across the country, also commissioned by CASEL, found that many do not address social-emotional learning in their core classes. Principals have said it can be difficult to build effective professional development for social-emotional learning, especially in schools with high rates of teacher turnover where retraining would be necessary to get new hires on board every year.

The report includes interviews with district leaders who’ve had success in implementing SEL.

To address concerns of principals, the report recommends:

  • more dedicated funding for social-emotional learning;
  • state-level standards that spell out what skills like self-management look like at every grade level from K-12;
  • more research and communications about the effects of SEL on student learning;
  • improvement to pre-service teacher training and professional development; and
  • continued work to improve assessments of students’ social and emotional skills.

You can read the whole report on social-emotional learning here.

Photo: Getty Images

Related reading on social-emotional learning:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.