Student Well-Being

Teacher Prep Slow to Embrace Social-Emotional Learning

By Evie Blad — April 04, 2017 5 min read
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As social-emotional learning gains traction in schools, many teachers are coming into their jobs unprepared to develop students’ skills in areas like self-awareness and navigating relationships, advocates say.

That’s because many teacher-preparation programs don’t provide enough training on how to identify the skills students need to be successful, and how to teach those skills, they say. Some states have also been slow to adapt teacher-licensing requirements to the reality that a growing numbers of schools and districts are exploring or implementing social-emotional learning.

Developing students’ abilities in understanding their emotions and making responsible decisions is accomplished through a combination of direct instruction, incorporating those skills into academic work, and changes to whole-school factors like discipline policies and family engagement.

“It’s important for teachers to learn how to specifically identify social and emotional competencies that are important for their students to have and to learn how to systematically develop them,” said Roger Weissberg, the chief knowledge officer of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. “This does not necessarily come naturally to people.”

While a majority of states include at least some social-emotional-learning competencies and whole-school factors in teacher-certification requirements, very few teacher-prep programs address such issues in mandatory coursework, according to a report by researchers at the University of British Columbia that was prepared for the collaborative.

Advocates for social-emotional learning point to research showing that the approach can help boost students’ academic performance and that employers are increasingly seeking recruits with strong relational and emotional skills.

Lack of Familiarity

Leaders of school districts using comprehensive social-emotional-learning programs say teachers’ lack of knowledge can make implementation difficult. That’s particularly true in schools with high rates of teacher turnover, where training teaching staff in a consistent, long-lasting strategy can be difficult as classrooms turn over between school years, they say.

That’s why proponents of social-emotional learning have set their sights on the teacher pipeline as they scale up the work at the state and district levels.

The University of British Columbia report assesses all states’ teacher-certification requirements in three areas. The first is whether those requirements address working with students on five social-emotional learning competencies identified by CASEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking. Researchers looked for mentions of those concepts and associated terms as they relate to students. The second is whether there were mentions of those concepts as they relate to teachers’ own social and emotional development.

In the third area, researchers explored whether would-be teachers are required to learn about issues related to students’ “learning contexts”: coordination across school departments and between classrooms to meet the needs of students, school-community partnerships, school-family partnerships, and social-emotional learning in the classroom context.

Researchers found that 27 states have teacher-licensure requirements that address four or five of the competencies. All 50 states and the District of Columbia addressed at least one area of “teachers’ SEL” in their certification; just 10 states addressed four or five of the competencies. Researchers found that 42 states addressed all four areas of the “learning context.”

State-by-State Look

But those state requirements weren’t always reflected in mandatory coursework in teacher-prep programs, the researchers found. They explored a sample of 30 percent of programs in every state, weighted for each state’s ratio of public-to-private programs.

In 14 states, a majority of the programs reviewed addressed three of the five social-emotional learning dimensions for teachers. In the rest of the states, a majority of the programs addressed fewer of the competencies. Researchers did not identify any state where the majority of teacher-prep programs they reviewed covered more than one of the student social-emotional-learning skills.

The majority of teacher education programs in 18 states addressed between one and three of the four ”learning context” dimensions. Only in Ohio did a majority of programs reviewed by researchers address all four areas of the learning context. (The research was supported by the NoVo Foundation, which also helps to support coverage of social-emotional learning in Education Week.)

After seeking input from deans of schools of education, the report recommends more social-emotional-learning research that relates specifically to teacher preparation.

It takes thoughtful work to shift the offerings of a teacher-prep program, said Nancy Markowitz, the director of the Center for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child at San Jose State University in California. Eight years ago, Markowitz worked with the university’s teacher education faculty to infuse a social-emotional-learning approach into coursework.

Professors explored how to teach teacher-candidates to nurture their own personal and relational skills while also developing them in students. They devised strategies, such as how to teach children the “self talk” they need to get through the sometimes defeated feelings of solving a difficult math problem, and how to greet every student at the doorway in the morning as a means of quickly assessing their readiness to engage in class.

“My belief has been that you’ve got to start upstream at the beginning,” said Markowitz, who added that she’s seen many programs come and go in schools. “Unless it’s built into the way people think and approach their work, it’s not going to be institutionalized.”

Now the whole-child center is piloting a program to help spread its social-emotional-learning strategies to other colleges of education, a process that requires time, flexibility, and a commitment to collaboration among faculty, she said.

As more states adopt standards for social-emotional learning and add related concepts into such areas as accountability and teacher evaluations, Markowitz expects teacher-preparation programs will have greater incentive to incorporate the concept into a greater number of courses.

When it comes to social-emotional learning, she said, “the university has been left out of the equation in terms of implementation of change.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Prep Slow to Embrace Social-Emotional Learning

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