Student Well-Being Q&A

What Good Social-Emotional Learning Should Look Like: First, Listen to the Community

By Arianna Prothero — December 09, 2021 6 min read
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The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, has selected a new president and CEO: Aaliyah A. Samuel, the deputy assistant secretary for local, state, and national engagement for the U.S. Department of Education.

Samuel is taking the wheel at a time when there is an unprecedented surge of interest in social-emotional learning among educators and policymakers brought on by the pandemic and the trauma and disruptions it has caused for schoolchildren. But the spotlight also brings challenges—in particular whether the social-emotional learning field can deliver on the research that shows SEL can boost student academics and well-being.

Samuel has worked both as a special education teacher and a principal before moving into policy work, and as the daughter of immigrant parents from Panama growing up in Washington state, Samuel said she has seen up close the promise and limitations of American public education.

“I was bilingual,” she said. “As a Latina who presents as a Black woman, living in an area that was not culturally diverse, my sister and I faced challenges in our identity and how we were seen.”

It wasn’t until 8th grade that she said she had a teacher who invested in developing a relationship with her, something that completely altered her academic trajectory. Samuel didn’t have her first teacher of color until she went to Tuskegee University for her undergraduate degree.

Samuel spoke with Education Week about the challenges and opportunities facing social emotional learning at this unique time.

There has been a surge of interest in SEL because of the pandemic and racial justice issues. Then there’s all this federal money now available for schools to adopt or expand social emotional learning. Are you concerned that in this rush to put SEL programs in place that schools will adopt unproven approaches or curricula, or they won’t implement them correctly?

Yes, I do share that concern. I can say this as a pure educator who is coming to this policy space, that if you look across the history of education, there’s a silver bullet that has often come in and people want to focus on this thing and then it goes away. And teachers have often expressed frustrations of not being able to keep up with the ricochet of things coming and going.

Aaliyah Samuel

But I will say that one thing that has been consistent, and consistent with CASEL specifically, is its commitment to high-quality and evidence-based SEL. I think that is going to be something that is critical to continue to elevate in the field.

SEL is not a new concept. So how do we make sure that as district leaders, as educators, and even as state leaders are trying to think about what SEL practices should look like in their states and in their communities, that we’re guiding them towards what the evidence is telling us, making sure we are elevating both the high-quality and the evidence-based SEL.

What can education leaders do to make sure they’re doing social-emotional learning right? What advice would you give them?

So, for district leaders, I think the first thing that they really have to do is make sure that they’re including the community. When I say communities, I mean the school community and the larger community of who they serve.

I did virtual school with my kids. We’ve seen firsthand the role now more than ever that parents are playing in their kids’ education and the heightened awareness that parents have. Parents want to be included. So, I think number one, district leaders need to get really clear on who they’re serving and what their needs are. Then start to move towards what is the right SEL approach that will work for that community. I think making sure that decisions aren’t made in isolation and that it’s inclusive in nature has to be step one.

What should schools be doing now to make sure they build sustainable SEL programs that are not fully dependent upon federal funding streams that are going to dry up?

I think understanding that SEL, in part, doesn’t have to be a separate thing, that it can be integrated into the work, into the fabric of what’s happening. I also think focusing on adult SEL as well is really important to the sustainability.

I want to switch gears a little bit. There has been criticism that some popular social-emotional learning programs or approaches aren’t relevant for children from marginalized groups or that social-emotional learning doesn’t adequately recognize the barriers and challenges some children are facing—whether it’s racism, poverty, or violence in their homes or communities. Is this a big issue within the field and how should it be addressed?

So, yes. Period. I agree. And I think that there absolutely needs to be a deeper focus on equity and how we approach it. As we think about what does this look like and how do we unpack it so that SEL does meet the needs of subgroups, I think there are two groups that are critical to engage in as we enter this conversation. One, parents, and two, the field. This should be a collaborative conversation with those who are impacted the most.

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But I also think, and as a woman of color, yes, the race piece is important, but we also have to talk about students with disabilities, whether it’s learning disabilities, kids with special healthcare needs, and how do we include them in this SEL conversation? I think it’s also really important to think about students who are coming from rural settings and how are we thinking about SEL approaches and supports for them?

Absolutely we need to be thinking about this and we also need to be thinking about it from a strength-based approach because solid SEL builds on the strengths of communities, families, and of the student.

On the flip side, there’s been increasing criticism from some political conservatives that social-emotional learning is a form of liberal indoctrination, Marxism, or a Trojan horse for integrating critical race theory into instruction. Do you see politicization as a threat to social-emotional learning?

So much of education has become politicized. And that is why I think it’s so important to elevate the practitioner voice and the parent voice in this conversation.

Is there a concern that there’s the potential? Yes. But I can also tell you first-hand that I have seen a bipartisan interest on SEL, on practices that help kids thrive academically.

When I was running the education division at the National Governors Association, we had 33 Republican governors in office. It took a lot of work and conversations, but we had a shared mental model of what it meant when we said “SEL”, what it meant when we said “equity.” And I think that’s something that we need to do as a field, particularly with policymakers. Right now, depending on who says SEL, there’s a very different mental model of what it is. And I think if we can get to a shared mental model and what we’re trying to accomplish, it will then make it easier to [get] bipartisan support. And I will tell you, there is not a policymaker, on the left or the right, who does not care about education and workforce, there’s not one.

In your eyes, what are the biggest challenges facing schools related to social-emotional learning?

I had an opportunity to sit down and talk to a group of educators in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a veteran teacher of over thirty plus years said to me, “Dr. Samuel, we have returned to school, but we haven’t returned to learning because we need to focus on the relationships.” And I think right now the biggest challenges for schools, or even for educators, is that there’s been such a heavy emphasis on reopening and the academics, it’s almost like educators feel like they’re pitted against the actual SEL and relationship needs and supports that kids need to adjust to being back.

I think really underscoring that it doesn’t have to be either or, it can be both. We can attend to the academics while we attend to the needs of the students. I really think that’s one of the biggest challenges for the field.

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