Special Report
Student Well-Being

What Educators Say Are the Biggest Barriers to Effective SEL

By Marina Whiteleather & Hayley Hardison — November 07, 2022 5 min read
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Social-emotional learning is one of the hottest topics in K-12 education. It is also one of the most confusing.

“Among the biggest challenges for adopting social-emotional learning is defining exactly what it is,” Education Week Staff Writer Evie Blad emphasizes in an Education Week explainer video on the topic. “[And] one of the biggest challenges in embracing social-emotional learning might be defining what success looks like.”

To get a better understanding of those two big challenges, Education Week polled an audience of educators on LinkedIn about social-emotional learning. Their insights confirmed just why there is so much confusion.

But, first, consider why SEL—which aims to help students manage their emotions, foster positive relationships, and make good decisions—is such a hot topic among educators at this moment in time. In a national survey of educators administered by the EdWeek Research Center in January, 39 percent of respondents said that “compared to prior to the pandemic in 2019, the social skills and emotional-maturity levels of their current students are ‘much less advanced.’”

And, according to data from DonorsChoose, teachers’ donation requests for supplies to help students develop their social-emotional learning skills have almost doubled since 2020, signaling that many educators view SEL as a high priority.

All this raises two key questions for schools: What is the right amount of SEL supports for students? And what is getting in the way of effective implementation of SEL strategies?

What educators had to say

In Education Week’s LinkedIn poll, educators were asked to weigh in on whether they felt that schools are offering too few, too many, or just the right amount of social-emotional-learning supports for students. Seventy-nine percent of the 1,386 people who responded to the survey said there are too few supports, 11 percent said there are too many, and 10 percent said most schools have the right balance.

(The poll is based on a convenience sample, not a nationally representative one, so the results aren’t definitive.)

In the comment section of the poll, the conversation focused heavily on the barriers that get in the way of effective implementation.

To begin with, educators pointed out that some students have had difficulty understanding the value of some of the formal SEL supports offered, opting instead to rely on trusted adults for guidance on social-emotional development. Some students also seemed to be conflating SEL with mental health programs. Social-emotional learning does not involve formal mental health diagnosis or support. It is about teaching students life skills that will help them succeed in school and future careers.

“One of our students mentioned something interesting at our committee meeting. ... They know the supports are out there and they are thankful for that, but they’re not going to use it and would prefer to go to a teacher or someone they trust. I found this interesting because as a school we have a lot of supports available but [I] wonder if most kids feel this way or not?”

Kimberly Espinoza, M.Ed.

Some questioned whether schools were the right place for this type of instruction and whether it was best taught at home.

“Once again, things that should be learned at home, via the family, are being foisted on us in the schools, to shore up the gaps!”

Judith Hawk

An April 2022 survey by Merrimack College and the EdWeek Research Center found that teachers work an average of 54 hours a week—with just under half the time devoted to teaching students. SEL is seen by many as just another extra box to check on their long list of daily tasks.

“I’ve cautioned that SEL must not ‘become an excuse to displace content instruction, burden teachers, or justify dubious pedagogy,’” wrote Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a blogger for Education Week, in a 2021 Education Week Opinion essay.

Some respondents to the LinkedIn poll echoed those sentiments:

“It’s going to vary school to school, district to district. But overall, SEL seems to be a trendy, check the box, weekly advisory lesson type of thing. Truly effective SEL needs to be cross curricular and facilitated to encourage true use and growth. So far in my experience, SEL has been treated as an extra task by teachers, and a ‘pointless waste of time’ by students. But it does so much to improve student growth and learning in and out of the classroom.”

Brian Talbot

“It is definitely an advisory activity in my school. The activities are either really superficial or feel like I’m being asked to lead a group therapy session I am not qualified for.”

Shellie Bryant, MLIS

Academic recovery from the pandemic has been slow and uneven. And now, there are growing concerns that those recovery efforts will be needed beyond the current state and federal funding period to support them. This environment is leaving little time and dwindling resources to work on fostering SEL skills in students.

“The problem is time. Many teachers are struggling to find time to fit it in around the pressure of academics and scheduling issues. They WANT to teach it but evaluations are not about SEL, they ARE about academics. It’s a messed up, broken system and mental health is now impacting staff who have been holding on through the pandemic.”

Paige Puryear

It can be difficult and complicated to gauge the effectiveness of SEL supports as a result of the variation in how they are implemented from district to district. More data and alignment on how to measure success would help identify whether SEL initiatives are working well for the community they were designed to support, several educators pointed out.

“I believe it’s a question of quality, as well, not just quantity. Many SEL initiatives may be ‘trendy,’ but there is sometimes a lack of data to support their positive impact. It is important to not use a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to teaching SEL when incorporating it into instruction. Every student and school community is different!”

Lindsay W.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as What Educators Say Are the Biggest Barriers to Effective SEL

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