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Report: SEL a ‘must have’ for schools

social and emotional learning

Social and emotional skills don’t just aid learning, they are inextricably linked to student success, a new study finds.

The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is a collection of educators, scientists, and advocates looking to devise new, whole-child approaches to classroom learning.

In its newest report, “How learning happens: Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development,” the commission found that “when done well, an integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development benefits each and every child and can be part of achieving a more equitable society.”

While the commission plans to release a broader strategy for embedding social and emotional learning more fully in K-12 classrooms, the interim study outlines some preliminary findings, based on scientific research, interviews with students, teachers, and other stakeholders, along with in-school observations

As states and districts look for new ways to effectively integrate social and emotional learning in their schools, here’s a few key findings from the report:

1. Learning is both social and emotional

More than just skills that enhance learning, new research finds that “social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic” skills are interlinked functions in the brain. And they are all key to learning. As schools transform their approaches to student instruction, they’ll need to ensure they engage students on every aspect of learning.

2. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to SEL

According to the report, various instructional approaches can be used to implement SEL in the classroom. “The common factor,” the report explains, “is that all approaches should be implemented intentionally and that students should have opportunities to explicitly learn about and apply social and emotional skills.” While one-track SEL lessons may be a good start, the commission says that to truly embed social and emotional learning into student development, schools need to use multi-pronged approaches.

3. Social, emotional, and academic development shouldn’t be limited to the classroom

Effective SEL implementation doesn’t end once students leave the classroom. To ensure students are fully immersed in social and emotional development, SEL strategies need to be applied to all aspects of district functions—from classroom instruction to school climate to family engagement. SEL strategies that “encompass the entire school community,” the report says, “are likely to be the most effective and sustainable and are less likely to be considered an add-on or nice-to-have.”

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4. Students’ cultural backgrounds matter

Because a student’s social and emotional development is closely tied to their individual experience, SEL strategies must take each student’s cultural and family backgrounds into account. Emphasizing diversity and equity inside and outside the classroom will help districts encourage students to explore their own strengths and vulnerabilities. “We need to focus on ‘what’s strong, not wrong’ about [students] and the schools,” says Karen Pittman, CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment and a member of the commission.

5. Teachers need to build their own SEL skills

To teach any subject—whether it’s history or math or English—teachers need to be experts in that area. The same goes for social and emotional learning. Equipping teachers to explore, acknowledge, and improve their own social and emotional skills allows them to be models for their students. For this reason, the commission says it’s vital that teacher preparation and professional development programs include SEL training.

6. SEL should be a local enterprise

Every community has its own story and faces its own challenges. These challenges factor into the social and emotional development of community members—especially students. The report emphasizes the need for local communities to develop their own SEL strategies rather than adhering to standardized, cookie-cutter approaches.  Along with “resources, guidance, and a supportive policy environment,” local communities “also need the autonomy and flexibility to determine their approach based on their students’ unique strengths, needs, and contexts.”

How is your school or district making social and emotional learning an integral part of student development? Is SEL a priority in your district? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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