School & District Management

Social-Emotional-Learning Researchers Gather Input From Educators

By Evie Blad — July 18, 2017 5 min read

In the increasingly popular fields of student engagement, social-emotional learning, and school climate, educators and researchers sometimes feel like they are working in totally different worlds.

While researchers tout long-term studies that show economic and academic benefits of such efforts, teachers say they sometimes struggle to apply the findings in classrooms.

And while many education leaders and policymakers espouse great enthusiasm for teaching students how to learn through problems and to resolve conflicts, they sometimes fail to see the nuance and limitations in existing research. That means some who buy in to programs pitched as silver bullets may end up without meaningful solutions.

So, when a national organization set out to craft a research agenda for what it calls social, emotional, and academic development of students—which encompasses issues related to students’ mindsets, relationships, and engagement in the classroom—organizers sought to build a bridge between the two worlds, inviting both educators and scientists to the table to discuss what excites them, what challenges them, and what should come next.

“Researchers are often quite removed from the actual [school] setting,” said Michael McGarrah, a research and policy associate for the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. “It’s difficult unless you’re doing the actual practitioner’s work day to day to have the full insight into all of their considerations.”

While many researchers work with schools to carry out studies on specific interventions, they may be less familiar with how other schools apply the findings after they are published, educators say.

Shaping a Research Agenda

The national commission, made up of current and former leaders from the worlds of education, policy, government, and business, has an ambitious agenda to try to define commonalities in the emerging and overlapping fields of social-emotional learning, deeper learning, mindsets, and student engagement.

Among the commission’s projects is the research agenda, which organizers hope will aid academics and philanthropic organizations as they find new directions for the work. The commission convened a panel of scientists who study such issues as engagement, social-emotional development, student attendance, and economics to help draft research recommendations. To ensure that their thinking incorporates classroom-level concerns, the scientists reached out to the commission’s panel of educators who are interested in incorporating a more “whole child” approach into their work.

They started small: Over the course of a few weeks, educators and scientists broke up into six pairs and spent an hour on the phone with each other, answering questions and identifying challenges in their work.

For example, Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, called Josh Garcia, the deputy superintendent of the Tacoma, Wash., schools, who has led the effort in his district to incorporate nonacademic factors into its accountability system.

Robert Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the Everyone Graduates Center, spoke with David Adams, the director of social-emotional learning at Urban Assembly, a network of public schools in New York City.

Recognizing the interest in their work, scientists in these fields are increasingly taking on more public roles to share and explain their insights and concerns, but the phone calls organized by the commission allowed for more personal conversations. The pairs tackled topics ranging from how to ensure that social-emotional learning isn’t seen as just a “fad,” how to communicate its importance to families and community members, and how schools should measure the results of their work in a way that is accurate, consistent, and useful for teachers.

Researchers have cautioned educators not to lean on using measures of students’ social and emotional skills for high-stakes purposes like placement, teacher evaluation, and accountability. They say such measures are still being refined so they won’t be prone to bias and inaccurate or inconsistent results.

But some ability to observe, document, and track results would help teachers as they implement new programs in fields that are still developing, Adams said.

Not Another Trendy Program

Some of his schools track and report teachers’ observations of students’ relationships and behaviors. While researchers often explore large population changes over time, educators need tools to track smaller changes within a school year so they can see if they are affecting students in positive ways, Adams said.

That might help convince educators that social-emotional learning and student-engagement work aren’t trendy programs that are quickly adopted and discarded, he said.

“Every three to five years, there’s a new shift in education that really grabs the attention,” Adams told Balfanz. “It’s difficult to maintain focus on the not-sexy things that really move the needle around achievement.”

Other conversations focused on the tendency among researchers to home in on very narrow ideas, such as empathy, persistence, or learning through failure. It’s difficult for educators to navigate all that research and chart a path for their own schools and classrooms, participants said.

In her call, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, said social-emotional-learning research also needs to be sensitive to cultural, developmental, and geographic contexts.

“Even when there are things that seem to be working really great, we can’t just copy them,” she said. Rather, researchers need to help educators devise larger strategies for creating their own approaches that work with their students and schools, she said.

The panel of scientists will continue to meet, using their conversations with educators as they make recommendations for the commission about exactly what questions they should be asking in the future.

Decades of research have shown that students’ emotional and social development is tied to their success in the classroom, McGarrah said, and there is building enthusiasm for social-emotional learning. The commission, he said, hopes a research agenda will help build on that momentum.

“There’s a lot of confidence about where we stand,” McGarrah said, “but saying where we need to go is a tall order.”

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Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Social-Emotional-Learning Researchers Seek Educator Input

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