Kendria Jones can’t imagine teaching in the Arkansas Delta community where she grew up without sharing her own troubled family history with students struggling with similar circumstances.
Jones had a substance-addicted mother and became a single mom after the death of her son’s father. Though her mother has now been in recovery for years, and her son is a college graduate working for his alma mater, Jones believes she has a lot to teach her students at Pine Bluff’s Jack Robey Jr. High School about persistence, resilience, and a willingness to seek help.
Those and other skills that got her through some tough years are now lumped under the catch-all heading of “social-emotional learning.” Jones believes they are as important as anything she’s teaching in her language arts class.
“I’m very vulnerable with them,” said Jones of her students. “I don’t mind sharing my history and things that I’ve endured and why I am where I am now. We get real-life lessons in my room.”
But, even for teachers like Jones who have a deep commitment to teaching those kinds of skills, incorporating SEL into math, science, or even language arts can be a tough task these days. Nearly two-thirds of educators said that weaving SEL skills into academic subjects is challenging, according to a survey of 824 educators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center from Sept. 28 to Oct. 17.
Educators cite pressure to help students catch up academically now that the pandemic has subsided, leaving little time for anything else; insufficient professional development; student emotional needs that go beyond the scope of educators’ abilities; and standardized tests that focus only on core academic material. Some say their own weariness with the demands placed on teachers these days makes them feel ill-equipped to help students cope with stress.
Complicating matters: In some places, politicians—from local school board members to governors—have thrown up roadblocks to anything that smacks of SEL.
While the term “SEL” means different things to different people, it generally refers to helping students control their emotions, empathize with others, set goals, embrace persistence, and think creatively. It does not involve providing formal mental health diagnosis or support for students.
But partly because it is defined so broadly, social-emotional learning is paired in many people’s minds with politically sensitive topics such as racism, sexuality, and critical race theory, an academic perspective that argues systemic racism is embedded in legal systems and policies and not just in individual bias.
More than 40 percent of principals and district leaders who participated in the EdWeek Research Center survey said that parents have raised concerns with their districts that social-emotional learning teaches children values they don’t approve of. But only 14 percent of that group said that this pushback caused their school or district to put less emphasis on SEL.
‘You have to connect with them on a personal level’
For their part, educators overwhelmingly think building students’ SEL skills is worth the time and effort. Eighty-three percent of educators surveyed said it had a positive impact on students’ academic outcomes, and a slightly higher percentage—84 percent—said it improved their students’ “soft skills,” such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.
For instance, Danielle Wilkes, who teaches language arts at John Paul Stevens High School in San Antonio, Texas, believes SEL skills are a necessary prerequisite to becoming a strong writer.
“If you want to get great writing from your students, you have to teach them how to reflect, how to process their own emotions, how to understand the human condition, and you have to connect with them on a personal level in order for them to trust you with their writing,” she said.
Students are best able to master SEL skills when they’re taught as both stand-alone content—perhaps during a morning advisory group before classes begin—as well as woven through academic subjects , experts say.
“If students are learning a lesson about teamwork or collaboration during an advisory class, they’re going to develop those skills better if they have opportunities to practice them throughout their day,” said Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning at the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. “When social-emotional learning is integrated into all of the curriculum, it means that they are making real-world connections to what they’re learning.”
Incorporating SEL into academics: It’s complicated
Nearly half of educators in the EdWeek Research Center survey—46 percent—said finding time to focus on SEL amid the drive to help students make up academic ground during the pandemic is a major barrier to teaching those softer skills.
But some are finding ways around that hurdle.
Jones, for instance, kicks off her classes each day with what she thinks of as roundtable discussion time, giving her students a chance to talk about what’s going on in their lives, especially if it’s interfering with their ability to learn.
The practice was originally part of a push in her school for a greater emphasis on SEL as students returned to in-person instruction following the height of the pandemic. More recently, though, she was told to use the time to instead focus on reading skills. But Jones has largely kept up the conversations anyway, sometimes connecting them to the texts she’s teaching.
“We really don’t have a lot of time to do what I would love to do, take way more time than 15 minutes to home in on social-emotional learning,” she said. “So, if I can find an article or short story or a novel that we can read that they can see themselves in, I see the emotions coming out. We’ll stop and we’ll discuss it. And I love the responses that they give.”
For instance, her classes recently read “Everyday Use,” a short story by Alice Walker with themes of racism and family strife. She asked her students to reflect on how the mother in the story treated one of her children very differently from the other, something many kids can relate to.
Similarly, Susan Providence, a teacher at Battle Creek Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn., knows math can be discouraging for some students. She prides herself on making her classroom a place where kids feel comfortable sharing their missteps with their classmates.
“Mistakes are an opportunity for learning,” she said. “So, if you make a mistake, that is wonderful, right?” She encourages students to help their peers who might get stuck on a particular problem or skill try a new strategy, even something as simple as showing how they could count on their fingers.
A little over a third of educators identified insufficient professional development as another hurdle to teaching SEL, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.
In particular, some said they weren’t given much guidance on how to incorporate SEL into academic subjects, particularly at the secondary level.
“I don’t think most teachers get that,” said Louise Williamson, a teacher at Hilltop High School in the Sweetwater Union High School district, near San Diego. “I had to pursue it. It wasn’t something that was offered to me. It was something that I had to go and find.”
What’s more, she said, SEL experts recommend that schools focus on bolstering adults’ capacity in areas like perseverance, empathy, and communication before delving into how teachers and other school staff can teach those skills to students.
But most schools skip that step, Williamson said.
“My observation has been that nobody does that,” she said. “Everybody is anxious to check the boxes and get [it] done and say that we’re doing [SEL]. And so, they rush into the student SEL and they neglect the adult SEL.”
Williamson has also noticed that “a lot of adults are resistant to it, particularly adults who aren’t feeling so well mentally. Well, I mean, yeah, you’re super stressed and you’re thinking about quitting education. And you have to go to a meeting where they talk about self-awareness. You’re gonna be like, ‘I don’t need this.’”
Treading carefully when it comes to SEL
The polarized political climate has had its own impact on SEL, as parents and community members question whether school is the right place to teach skills like grit and kindness or whether that’s best left up to parents. The problem is many parents conflate teaching SEL with educating students in anti-racism and sexuality issues.
That kind of thinking has prompted at least one high-profile rejection of curricular materials that incorporated so-called soft skills along with more traditional academics: Last spring, the Florida department of education rejected several math textbooks—which were otherwise deemed as in alignment with the state’s curriculum—in part because they included references to social-emotional learning and its principles.
The department was not specific about why each of the textbooks was scrapped, releasing only four examples of material it considered dubious. But a review by The New York Times found that some of the rejected textbooks contained references to skills considered central to SEL, such as disagreeing respectfully and having “a growth mindset” or belief that success depends on time and effort, not just innate talent.
Examples like that have teachers in other, more politically conservative states treading carefully.
For example, in Arkansas, Jones and other teachers who work with a nonprofit organization called Teach Plus, which seeks to give educators a voice in policymaking, recently put together a brief calling for more resources for SEL.
They recommended that the state help create school-specific mental health positions, such as a coordinator or coach, who could provide both support to students and professional development to teachers. They also want to see policymakers protect teacher time for SEL lessons and get teachers trained in areas like mental health first aid.
Those requests were based on a survey of Arkansas teachers, fewer than half of whom felt their schools provided adequate social-emotional supports for students.
Now, though, the teachers are thinking carefully about how they want to describe their efforts, to keep from running into political backlash.
At first, the group thought of underscoring their arguments by pointing to remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona supporting mental health and SEL programs in schools.
But then, they wondered how that would go over in a state that “as a whole, isn’t a big fan of the current [Biden] administration,” said Perla Andrade, an instructional facilitator at Baseline Academy, a public school in Little Rock, and one of the teachers who worked on the brief.
The recommendations were finalized in October, and so far, the group hasn’t talked to policymakers about them. But Andrade is looking at what’s going on in other states, including Florida, and at how lawmakers are “mimicking those states around them” when it comes to skepticism about SEL.
“I do wonder how these conversations are going to go,” she said. “This should not be a political issue, but you know, here we are.”
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 Why It’s So Hard to Weave Social-Emotional Learning Into Academics