Special Report
Professional Development

The Success of Social-Emotional Learning Hinges on Teachers

By Madeline Will — April 07, 2020 7 min read
Teresa Kaufman, right, an art teacher at High Plain Elementary School in Andover, Mass., loses a round of “rock, paper, scissors” during an icebreaker at an SEL workshop held for teachers who work in the Andover school district.
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Schools are closed in much of the United States, leaving students to hunker down at home for months without their usual outlets for learning and socializing. Educators say trying to meet their social-emotional needs will be more important than ever. Even when schools reopen, students might still be grappling with fears, anxieties, or lingering trauma.

But too often, experts say, teachers are tasked with implementing new social-emotional learning practices in their classrooms without adequate, ongoing support, which can tank the effectiveness of the initiative.

“Everybody wants to do things quickly and efficiently, so there’s been a move toward online training as a way for teachers to do this,” said Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University and a founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, known as CASEL. “There’s little or no evidence that online training is sufficient to have teachers implement these programs with quality.”

He continued: “I think there are districts that feel they have to check SEL off as one thing they’ve done. They purchase curricula and they buy online training, and in most cases, if you go back two years later, you won’t find anything [different in schools].”

Sustained implementation and change in classrooms, Greenberg said, “really requires leadership and ongoing support.”

After all, actively supporting the social and emotional development of students is not an innate skill. Veteran teachers are not used to some of these practices, and many new teachers didn’t learn these skills in their teacher-preparation programs.

But only 29 percent of teachers said they have received ongoing training in social-emotional learning that has continued throughout the school year, a new EdWeek Research Center survey found. A fifth of teachers say they never receive opportunities in their job to reflect upon and improve their own social-emotional skills.

To help, a growing number of districts have begun to hire SEL coaches to work with teachers. Others are training their principals alongside their teachers in order to boost the entire school’s commitment to that work.

At first, many teachers “think of SEL as just gushy, feeling stuff, and it’s not just that—we’re really looking at embedding it into our practices and our academic content areas as well,” said Julie Carter, a SEL behavior coach in the North East Independent school district in San Antonio.

The Texas district has eight SEL coaches who lead professional-development sessions and work directly with teachers who need support. The coaches conduct observations, model instructional strategies, and help the teachers collect and analyze student data.

Carter said the coaching model has made teachers more comfortable with implementing new practices than a one-off training would.

“When you do it just that one time, it’s hard to get it to stick,” she said. “This is the way we’re getting it from the bottom up—it’s going to take more time for it to get to everyone, but it’s going to be so deeply embedded. It’s going to stay around longer because it will be part of the process, it’s not just one more [initiative].”

Districtwide Changes

In the Andover public schools, a nearly 6,000-student district a half hour outside Boston, Superintendent Shelley Berman has made fostering “safe, caring, and culturally responsive” classrooms a priority.

Teachers in Andover, Mass., make a “quilt” with notecards as part of an exercise during an SEL professional-development workshop related to culture and climate. They shared positive practices in schools that contribute to a more welcoming learning environment for students.

Four years ago, the district created a sprint team—a group tasked with making significant changes quickly, freed from bureaucratic red tape—to incorporate social-emotional learning and culturally proficient practices into the district’s 10 schools. The focus has been on: direct instruction in social skills; community service and service learning; creating a classroom climate that gives students a sense of community and mutual responsibility; and making sure all students feel welcome in school through culturally responsive curriculum and practices.

That starts with professional development, Berman said. Many teachers have gone through 10 days of training with Responsive Classroom, a SEL program that centers on generating a safe and engaging climate, in addition to in-house training. The district is now in the process of certifying some of its teachers to become Responsive Classroom trainers, too.

Also, Andover has sent teams of educators and administrators from four schools to participate in a yearlong certification program in social-emotional learning at William James College in Newton, Mass.

“We’ve tried to go very deep in this work with training leaders and providing teachers with leadership opportunity as well,” Berman said.

Pamela Lathrop, principal of High Plain Elementary, in Andover, Mass., leads a workshop for teachers. Her school focuses on creating a sense of belonging by ensuring teachers learn the stories of students’ names and how to pronounce them.

The district doesn’t have SEL coaches yet, he said, but that’s something it’s working toward.

So far, the efforts seem to be working: The district has administered a student-climate survey for the past three years, and Berman said there’s been “real growth” in students’ sense of connection to their school community. (There hasn’t been improvement in every area, however: Berman said that students’ sense of safety has decreased since the district started doing active-shooter drills.)

At High Plain Elementary, the first year’s survey results revealed that not all students felt welcome. The school has a diverse population—the first language of about 30 percent of students is not English, with the most common languages being Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish—and the results showed that educators were “maybe not putting the time into saying children’s names correctly,” said Principal Pamela Lathrop.

“What we found was that sometimes kids didn’t think it was OK to correct a grown-up,” said Lathrop, who is also the co-chair of the Andover district’s SEL sprint team. “We have made an effort to spend time in letting children help us learn how to say their name correctly [and discussing] the importance of names.”

To get to that point, she said, school leaders had to “guide the teachers through the work first.” The school hosted a professional learning book club for which teachers read Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, which examines identity.

Then, teachers shared the stories of how they got their own names and, in a group discussion, made the connection to their students.

School Leaders’ Role

After all, Lathrop said, “anytime you want teachers to have a change or have an effect on kids, you have to also recognize teachers need to have that experience within themselves.”

Click here for more exclusive SEL survey results.

That means if school leaders want teachers to greet students in the morning and make personal connections to them outside of academics, administrators have to walk the walk with their staff, she said.

“You have to recognize that a teacher’s day is a long day, and you have to recognize that the demands on the teacher are high, and that sometimes you have to take a break and take care of a teacher’s social-emotional growth,” she said.

For example, she has offered mindfulness activities for teachers and found nontraditional ways to celebrate teachers’ work. This year, the school’s faculty went together to see the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which tells the story of Fred Rogers of TV’s “Mister Rogers” fame.

For Jill McCarthy, a 2nd grade teacher at High Plain, the movie outing was a “breath of fresh air.”

Activities like that, she said, show that school leaders “have faith in us ... [and] offer up so many opportunities to come together and celebrate our work.” That positive environment is reflected in “our results and even the kids, the demeanor amongst each other, and the adults [with] the respect we carry within the building.”

That’s why it’s important for principals to be considered social-emotional leaders, as well as instructional ones, Penn State’s Greenberg said. Too often, he said, “principals get almost no training in SEL or in how to lead a school in a way that is caring, healthy, and respectful.”

“When principals are involved in a sustained way in the intervention, the teachers teach more effectively,” Greenberg said.

In Education Week’s survey, 87 percent of respondents said administrators had gotten training in SEL. But when school leaders were asked about the type of professional development they received, just 42 percent said they received ongoing training throughout the year.

It Takes Time

Even with a supportive school culture, it takes time for teachers to learn how to implement social-emotional learning in their classrooms, educators say.

Berman, the superintendent in Andover, said that’s especially true for high school teachers, who already have a lot of standards and content to cover. And older students tend to have more significant issues and conflicts than their younger classmates, Berman said, leaving some high school teachers to feel like they’re “not trained as a guidance counselor.”

Click here for more exclusive SEL survey results.

The district is planning to do more professional development around classroom culture at the high school level, he said.

Teachers don’t know what they don’t know, which makes ongoing support so important, said Lindsey Frank, a climate and social-emotional learning coach for Community Consolidated School District 59 in Elk Grove Village, Ill. The coaching is optional, but Frank, who is the sole SEL coach in the district, said more and more teachers have begun reaching out for support.

“Now that it’s a part of our culture as a district, we’ve seen that shift where a lot of people do find a lot more confidence in being able to support students,” she said.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Success of SEL Hinges on Teachers


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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