Student Well-Being

The Secret to Improving Students’ Social-Emotional Skills? Start With the Adults

By Arianna Prothero — October 23, 2020 5 min read
A young white school boy sits with his Black teacher in a one to one reading session. He reads to her and is smiling clearly enjoying the book. The teacher is smiling too. In the background a diverse group of kids sit around a classroom table.
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To weather the stressors caused by the pandemic, students need strong social and emotional skills. But for schools looking to invest in students’ social emotional learning, the place to start is not necessarily with the students, but with the adults.

Teachers, administrators, and support staff at schools must understand their own social-emotional abilities and attend to their own well-being before they can teach those competencies to their students. And professional development plans for implanting new social-emotional learning programs should include explicit efforts to build adults’ SEL skills. Those are among several conclusions from an extensive report from the RAND Corporation and The Wallace Foundation on lessons learned during the early implementation of SEL programs in schools and before- and after-school programs in six cities.

While interest in social-emotional learning is surging, research on how best to implement SEL programs and practices has lagged behind the demand, says the report. The report examines two years of data from the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years from student surveys, staff interviews, and school observations in elementary schools and out-of-school time programs in Boston; Dallas; Denver; Palm Beach county, Fla.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Tulsa, Okla.

Problems With Train-the-Trainer

There is hunger among the teaching force for more professional development on social-emotional learning. A separate survey released by RAND earlier this month, but conducted before the pandemic, found that 80 percent of teachers want more professional development on several topics related to SEL.

But in interviews and surveys for this most recent report, RAND found that teachers want their professional development to be both more hands-on and to specifically address how to teach social-emotional skills to different populations, such as students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds or students with disabilities.

Schools found that relying solely on train-the-trainer professional development models—where someone from the central office trains a few school-based staff who then train more people within their school—overburdened school-level trainers and created inconsistencies among schools, especially when it came to training on SEL curriculum. Several schools in the study responded to this challenge by recentralizing SEL curriculum training, although the report recommends reserving the train-the-trainer strategy for some instances, such as when a particular school may need more tailored training to address a specific issue or student population.

Several schools also used SEL coaches to work with teachers, which helped schools customize professional development to meet teachers’ needs. However, because there was some confusion over the role and purpose of SEL coaches in some schools in the study, the report recommends clarifying, codifying, and communicating SEL coaches’ responsibilities.

SEL training was often challenged by staff turnover, especially in before- and after-school programs. One way schools and out-of-school time programs in the trial dealt with this issue was by offering some professional development opportunities in smaller units and more frequently throughout the school year. For example, one school did this by offering 30-minute professional development units on SEL topics before the school day started.

Building SEL Skills and Dispelling Myths

Principals reported a variety of other ways they helped teachers develop their own SEL competencies and boost emotional well-being, such as setting aside time for SEL instruction, starting an SEL book club, encouraging deeper relationships among adults at their school, modeling at the administrator level strong social and emotional competencies for teachers, and developing a charter outlining what teachers and other school staff need to feel safe and supported at school.

Principals also borrowed some strategies used to teach students social-emotional skills, such as giving teachers more say in decision making and starting meetings with warm welcomes and optimistic closures.

Finally, school leaders reported that they ran into some misconceptions about, and resistance to, SEL among their teachers, such as beliefs that SEL is only for students with behavioral issues or young children. An Education Week Research Center Survey early last spring also found that while 81 percent of educators said their school placed “some” or “a lot” of focus on SEL for grades 1-3, only 66 percent said the same was true for grades 9-12, even though teenage years are a particularly important time for students to develop their social and emotional competencies. That survey was conducted before the pandemic forced mass school closures in the U.S.

Furthermore, while all teachers in the RAND study said in a survey they agreed SEL would improve students’ academic performance, one-third said they either agreed or strongly agreed that adults other than themselves, such as school counselors, psychologists, or parents, should be primarily responsible for meeting students’ social-emotional learning needs.

The report recommends that principals and superintendents make it clear in their professional development efforts that supporting students’ social emotional learning is a “foundational element” of each adult’s role in the school, and that SEL benefits all students, not just students with behavioral issues.

The report examines several other aspects of implementing SEL programs, including creating strong school climates, developing partnerships between schools and before- and after-school programs, and the system-level steps district leaders must take to successfully coordinate SEL initiatives across multiple schools and programs.

This study comes two years into a six-year project launched by The Wallace Foundation called the Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative. As part of the initiative, The Wallace Foundation awarded grants in 2016 to nine urban school districts and the out-of-school time programs they partnered with to support students’ social and emotional skills.

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

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