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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘All Learning Is Social and Emotional’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 06, 2019 8 min read
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Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith agreed to answer a few questions in writing about their new book, All Learning Is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are both professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University. Dominique Smith is the director of student services at Health Sciences High & Middle College. Fisher, Frey, and Smith have written several books together, and All Learning is Social and Emotional (ASCD) is their latest.

LF: What do you say to a teacher who says, “I can’t fit in all the academic content I’m supposed to cover now. How do you expect me to find the time to add social-emotional learning to the mix?”

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Dominique Smith:

Our answer is simple—you’re already doing it. Every interaction you have with students builds (or harms) their social and emotional development. But are you building their social and emotional learning with purpose and intention? For example, when we allow students to identify their emotions and consider the emotional response, they are developing social skills. When we ignore their emotional reactions or, worse, tell them that their emotions are bad, learning is blocked.

As a simple example, when reading literature, teachers can invite students to talk about characters’ emotions and how those characters respond, noting responses that were not productive and asking students about other ways that the character might respond. Emotional regulation is just one aspect of social and emotional learning. Social skills are also important. When teachers structure collaborative learning in productive ways, students can practice (and receive feedback about) their social skills. And who doesn’t want students interacting productively with their peers, practicing academic language, and engaging in rigorous learning tasks? As part of that learning, students need to develop and practice their social skills. Doing so builds a habit, and it fosters better academic learning.

LF: You talk a lot about “student agency” in the book. What is it, why is it important, what do you think is its connection to SEL, and what are some specific actions teachers can take to promote it?

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Dominique Smith:

Agency is the idea that your actions mean something. When we have a high sense of agency, we know that our efforts will pay off. Said another way, agency is a student’s belief in the ability to influence the world. It’s our capacity to act in an empowered and autonomous way. On the academic level, for example, students with strong agency believe that studying will yield dividends. But agency is more than academic. Some students understand that their efforts to make friends will result in better social networks and perhaps a better quality of life.

What we do know is that students with low levels of agency are frustrated, immobilized, and often lash out. When teachers provide students feedback, agency can be built (or destroyed). There is a difference between saying, “You got these problems right” and “You really focused on these and stuck with it for 15 minutes. Your efforts paid off, and you got them all right. Can you tell me the strategies you used?” Yes, it took a little longer to do that, but imagine the payoff down the road as the student learns to persevere on academic tasks.

LF: Metacognition is also highlighted. How would you explain its connection to SEL, and what are some strategies you recommend for teachers to help students develop it?

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Dominique Smith:

Metacognition is the ability to recognize one’s thinking, to consider the actions needed to complete a task and the strategies one might use to do so. Given that definition, we’re not sure that there is a teacher whose quality of life would not be better in direct relation to the increases in students’ ability to think metacognitively. There are a number of ways that teachers can build metacognition, and it starts with being clear on what you want students to learn. Clear learning intentions (or learning targets, objectives, etc.) signal to students that there is learning to be accomplished. That’s not enough to change metacognitive processing, but it’s the beginning. Students also have to see relevance in the learning intentions and understand what success looks like.

Our experiences suggest that schools and teachers have focused more on what students need to learn and less on what success with that learning looks like. This was certainly true in our school. Learning intentions were everywhere, but in reflection, students did not know what success looked like. They did not have models, examples, or criteria to use to determine when they had achieved the learning goal. Now that they do, we see a major difference in their ability to engage metacognitively. For example, about halfway through an earth-science class, the teacher asked students to revisit the success criteria introduced at the beginning of the lesson. As a group, they noted that they had met the first one, which was centered on extracting relevant data from tables. However, they had not yet met the second one, which was focused on applying logic rules to the data. The teacher then asked them to discuss a plan for how they were going to achieve the second success criterion.

When students accept the challenge of learning, they pay attention, set goals, recognize and solve problems, make decisions, and utilize organizational skills, all of which are important in metacognitive development. Once students have accepted the challenge of learning, they need feedback to continue their metacognitive journey. This feedback can come from themselves, especially when they have clear success criteria, their peers, or their teacher. In this case, the feedback should focus on the metacognitive strategies they will use.

LF: What do you think is SEL’s connection to race and equity?

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Dominique Smith:

We see SEL as one of the steps on the path to realizing the promise of equity, along with instructional excellence, opportunities to learn, physical integration, and developing inspired learners. Failing to address the social and emotional needs of students places some of them at increased risk. If a student lacks emotional-regulation skills, for example, that student is likely to be sent out of class more often, suspended more often, and maybe even expelled. However, these punitive measures don’t teach the child the SEL skills he or she needs. As a result, that student fails to learn alongside peers, and any unfinished learning is neglected. The result: inequity.

But there is another worry we have when it comes to SEL and equity, and that is the unintended consequences from our well-meaning efforts. Take, for example, the push for resilience. Overall, that is an admirable goal, and young people should learn to overcome the challenges that they have. But only up to a point. If the “challenge” is harmful, abusive, racist, or such, then resilience may not be the answer. In those cases, perhaps resistance, well-placed anger, and advocacy are the more appropriate responses. In other words, resilience is valuable up to a point, but sometimes students who have been marginalized need other skills. In many cases, SEL “programs” are not equipped to address these issues. It’s a challenge and one that is worthy of our attention, time, and efforts.

LF: When you consider all of the SEL ideas you mention in the book, which ones do you think are easier and which ones do you think are harder for teachers to implement?

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Dominique Smith:

There are not easier and harder aspects of SEL to implement, but there are some that are more familiar. As we think about it, cognitive regulation is probably the most familiar to teachers. For counselors and psychologists, emotional regulation may be more familiar. We’re interested in integrating SEL into the regular flow of the classroom more than we are about specialized SEL programs. In their meta-analysis of 213 SEL programs (involving 270,034 students, grades K-12), Durlak and colleagues (2011) noted that classroom teachers were very effective at implementing SEL. In fact, teacher implementation resulted in statistically significant outcomes on all six factors studied:

* Social and emotional skills (effect size = .62): This component focused on “identifying emotions from social cues, goal setting, perspective taking, interpersonal problem-solving, conflict resolution, and decisionmaking” (p. 6).

* Attitudes toward self and others (effect size = .23): This component included “self-perceptions (e.g., self-esteem, self-concept, and self-efficacy), school bonding (e.g., attitudes toward school and teachers), and conventional (i.e., pro-social) beliefs about violence, helping others, social justice, and drug use” (p. 6).

* Positive social behavior (effect size = .26). This category focused on “getting along with others” (p. 6).

* Conduct problems (effect size = .20). This category included a range of problematic behaviors including “disruptive class behavior, noncompliance, aggression, bullying, school suspensions, and delinquent acts” (p. 7).

* Emotional distress (effect size = .25). This category focused on internalized mental-health issues including “depression, anxiety, stress, or social withdrawal” (p. 7).

* Academic performance (effect size = .34). This category included “standardized reading or math achievement-test scores” as well as grades in specific classes (p. 7).

In other words, it’s doable and it’s worth the effort.

LF: You talk about “SEL Schools.” How effective can teachers be applying SEL in their own classrooms if they are unable to get a schoolwide “buy-in” to the concept?

Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Dominique Smith:

Although we believe it is better, and more effective and impactful, to have a whole school initiative, individual teachers can build students’ social and emotional skills. It’s all about the interactions we have with students and developing the mindset that our interactions, lessons, and choices (including the books we select) have the potential to build the social and emotional lives of our students. For too long, this has been neglected, ignored, or under the surface. We need to surface this issue and recognize that we are powerful and influence, in significant ways, more than academics. When we are with other people’s children, we need to remember that our society improves when both academics and social-emotional skills are developed.

LF: Thanks, Nancy, Douglas, & Dominique!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.