Student Well-Being

Teaching Social-Emotional Skills is Hard, Time-Consuming, and Necessary, Report Says

By Alyson Klein — November 12, 2021 3 min read
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Helping students grow their social and emotional skills has become a big part of school counselors’ jobs, particularly given the impact of the pandemic on student mental health and behavioral issues.

But it’s also time-consuming, difficult work, and counselors need more support and resources, according to a report released this week by ACT and the American School Counselors Association, based on a survey done last year of counselors and district officials.

Nearly everyone agrees that social-emotional learning is both an important priority for schools and a part of counselors’ purview. The vast majority of school counselors surveyed—85 percent—reported that they were “very interested” in incorporating SEL into their school counseling programs. Less than 3 percent said they were only “a little interested” or “not interested at all.” Meanwhile, the majority of district leaders—72.5 percent—put developing students’ social-emotional skills on par with building their academic knowledge.

“A common misperception is that school counselors provide really just a one-off counseling session,” said Jill Cook, ASCA’s executive director on a call with reporters. “While that may have been the case several decades ago, today school counselors develop and deliver comprehensive programs to address student needs, with the goal of ensuring success for all students. It is no longer the day of the guidance counselor who perhaps only worked with students who are applying to college or students who may be in disciplinary trouble.”

Teaching social-emotional skills can take up a huge chunk of a counselor’s day. A little more than a third of counselors surveyed last year by ACT and ASCA—39 percent—reported that teaching social and emotional learning skills consumes at least half of their time, with 12 percent saying that it takes up three-quarters or more. Roughly another quarter of counselors—27 percent—said they spend somewhere between 21 percent and 49 percent of their workday helping students develop social-emotional skills. Just 17 percent said it takes up 10 percent or less of their time.

What’s more, many of the most important components of social-emotional learning are also the toughest for students to master, survey respondents said. Counselors selected three skills—demonstrating effective coping skills when faced with a problem, exhibiting self-discipline and self-control, and applying self-motivation and self-direction to learning—as among both the top five most critical pieces of SEL and the five most difficult for kids to learn.

Despite the importance placed on SEL, many school counselors aren’t getting the resources they need to implement it as successfully as possible. Less than half of counselors—44 percent—said that their school district directors supported their work to develop students’ SEL skills. But most school district officials surveyed—88 percent—thought they advocated a “great deal” for resources to help school counselors teach SEL.

And while nearly all counselors—98 percent—say it’s either “very” or “moderately” important for parents/guardians to play a part in their child’s social and emotional development, more than three-quarters of counselors believe that it’s “very hard or moderately hard” to get them involved.

The vast majority of counselors—91 percent—also said they would benefit a “great deal” or at least “moderately” from additional professional development on SEL. But only a quarter reported getting a “great deal” of professional development, while 38 percent said they had gotten a moderate amount. More than a third said they had only gotten a little professional development on SEL or none at all.

To help, district leaders should make SEL a part of their comprehensive plans, use evidence to teach social-emotional skills, make sure school counselors have a leadership role on SEL at the school level, and use federal and state funding to support SEL development, the report recommends.

The most important of those recommendations, according to Janet Godwin, the CEO of ACT? Putting SEL into district plans. Godwin, who served on a local school board, said there’s a lot of clamoring for board members’ attention: transportation, academics, food, extracurriculars.

“If SEL is not intentionally, thoughtfully incorporated into comprehensive plans for the school alongside curriculum and academic achievement goals, it is not going to get done,” she said.

The survey, which was conducted in February through April of 2020, included 263 school counselors, 26 school counselor educators, 68 pre-service school counselors in training, and 41 district directors with authority over staffing and support of school counselors.

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