Student Well-Being

Social-Emotional Learning: States Collaborate to Craft Standards, Policies

By Evie Blad — August 01, 2016 6 min read
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Eight states will work collaboratively to create and implement plans to encourage social-emotional learning in their schools, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning announced this month.

The organization, which is also known as CASEL, will assist the states through consultation with its own staff and a panel of experts. The participating states are California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington. And an 11 additional states that originally applied to join the collaborative will have access to the materials it develops.

Each participating state has a unique plan, and many of those plans include creating developmentally sensitive standards that show how social and emotional skills are demonstrated at each grade level, developing materials to infuse traditional classroom concepts with social-emotional learning concepts, building strategies for state-level support, and implementing professional-development plans for schools about the subject.

Advocates for social-emotional learning hope the work, in particular the standards each state develops, will help answer “the whole question of how to align from the statehouse to the classroom,” said Roger Weissberg, the chief knowledge officer for CASEL.

“Having state standards helps inform districts, central offices, and boards of education what might be prioritized,” he said. “They can provide more guidance and help inform schools.”

Schools Increasingly Emphasize Social-Emotional Learning

The work comes as an increasing number of schools explore social-emotional learning, a field that emphasizes nurturing concepts like students’ relational skills, decisionmaking, and self-management to help foster greater life success both inside and outside the classroom. It also comes as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, places a greater emphasis on non-academic concepts and “whole child” issues.

To this point, the boldest, most comprehensive work in social-emotional learning and non-cognitive skills has been done at the school and district level. The state collaborative was inspired in part by CASEL’s work with a group of large, mostly urban, school districts that have committed to implementing districtwide SEL plans and allowing researchers to study their results, Weissberg said. And other districts not affiliated with the organization have undergone similar efforts, strategies that include reworking discipline policies, directly teaching social and emotional concepts in the classroom, and working to improve child-adult relationships within schools.

As an increasing number of schools grow interested in the field, more are asking states for standards and assistance, said Linda Dusenbury, a senior research scientist at CASEL. States, in turn, are eager to collaborate to develop research-based approaches, she said. In a nationwide review, CASEL researchers learned that, while all 50 states have social-emotional learning standards for pre-k, just three have state social-emotional learning standards that span all grade levels: Illinois, West Virginia, and Kansas. Twenty-six states applied to join the collaborative.

“We have amassed so much research by this point that we’re now ready, I believe, to really be helping to inform education through things like policy and learning standards,” Dusenbury said. “And what’s really exciting is that the states seem very eager to partner in that effort.”

CASEL emphasizes five “competencies” in its approach: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking. Standards show developmentally sensitive ways of explaining those concepts to students from pre-k to high school graduation and how those lessons can blend with traditional curricular instruction. The organization’s researchers previously worked with Illinois to create the first such state social-emotional learning standards in the country.

State Social-Emotional Learning Standards

Social-emotional competencies are implied in many traditional state standards, which require skills in areas like teamwork in areas like math and English, Dusenbury said, but few provide the roadmap necessary to nurture those skills.

“We need to be ... articulating these goals around social-emotional learning, as well as academic goals,” Dusenbury said. “We assume kids will have the ability to self manage so that they can calm themselves enough to sit still and pay attention, we assume that they will have the relationship skills to participate in collaborative activities ... but we’re often not explicit about it.”

State education leaders in participating states said the collaborative will give them a chance to build on existing work and develop more formal strategies.

“We really feel a responsibility to create some tools to give to schools,” said Mona Johnson, director of student support for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

As a result of legislation passed in 2015, Washington already had a social-emotional learning task force, Johnson said. As part of the collaborative, the state plans to develop strategies for statewide implementation, standards, plans for building community and family support for social-emotional learning, an online training module for teachers, and strategies to build the emotional capacity of adults in schools, she said.

Georgia will take a similar approach, said Caitlin Dooley, the state’s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction. With help from the collaborative, the state plans to create social-emotional learning standards, create a professional development strategy, and update a statewide student survey that largely focuses on school climate to include some questions about students’ social and emotional competencies.

“Oftentimes this is what good teachers do anyway,” Dooley said. “We are not trying to add another bucket, but, for teachers who need help with it, making it explicit and clear will help guide them in the direction.”

Are Social-Emotional Measures Ready for State Accountability Systems?

What about that tricky issue of measuring social-emotional learning? The controversial approach has been heavily discussed lately because the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to add an “additional indicator” to their school accountability systems in addition to traditional factors, like student test scores. While the law lists examples like school climate and student engagement, some have suggested that including social-emotional learning in accountability might be an effective way of spreading it to more schools. A group of California districts, known as the CORE districts, have already experimented with the concept.

But many prominent researchers have questioned the validity of self-reported student surveys, which are most commonly used to measure SEL. And some have said it’s problematic to use those surveys for high- stakes accountability purposes.

Currently, “perfectly unbiased, unfakeable, and error-free measures are an ideal, not a reality,” researchers Angela Duckworth and David Yeager said in a May 2015 essay published in Educational Researcher that detailed an array of flaws with current measures.

While state social-emotional learning standards may eventually provide a framework for accountability, CASEL is not encouraging states in the collaborative to adopt such a strategy at this point, Weissberg said. Rather, states can look at other data, such as surveys about students’ perception of school climate, to determine if their strategies are successful, he said.

Photo: Madison Reid, a student in a combined 2nd and 3rd grade classroom, leads a discussion on good listening with her classmates during a morning session at Cleveland’s Wade Park Elementary School. Such classroom exercises are part of Cleveland’s districtwide social-emotional learning plan. CASEL’s district collaborative, which includes Cleveland, inspired its new work at the state level. --Dustin Franz for Education Week

Related reading on social-emotional learning:

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