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How to Bring Social Emotional Learning to Life in 2020

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  • School Leaders
  • School Leadership

Learning is so much more than mastering long division or understanding the cause of the American Revolution. It’s about helping students build valuable skills that last a lifetime. 

Social emotional learning is essential for student success at your school. But where should you start?

Since the 1990s, social emotional learning has been tied to academic achievement, a positive school culture and 21st century skills.

Table of Contents

  1. What is social emotional learning?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. How to choose a social emotional learning curriculum
  4. 5 steps to implement social emotional learning at your school

What is social emotional learning?

Social emotional learning, or SEL, helps students build social skills, form healthy relationships and manage their emotions

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 

“SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

For many students, school is a major source of meaningful relationships and one of the first places they make social connections outside of their immediate family. Building these skills from a young age is incredibly important for academic and lifelong success. 

So what? You might say. Children learn these skills on their own -- they don’t need to be taught at school. 

You might be surprised. 

Social emotional learning needs to be taught to have maximum impact. The research shows that students with well-developed social emotional skills see improved academic and social outcomes:

“Young children with SEL competencies participate more in the classroom, are more accepted by classmates and teachers, and are given more instruction and positive feedback by teachers. Without SEL competencies, young children show greater likelihood to dislike school and perform poorly on academic tasks and to later experience grade retention, drop out, and persist in antisocial behaviors.”

So what, exactly, does social emotional learning include? CASEL lists five core SEL competencies:

Self-awarenessRecognizing emotions and thoughts, understanding how they influence behavior and assessing personal strengths and weaknesses.
Self-managementRegulating thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Setting goals, controlling impulses and managing stress.
Social awarenessUnderstanding the perspective of others, showing empathy for diverse groups of people and finding support through family, school and community relationships.
Relationship skillsCommunicating, cooperating, resisting negative pressure and offering help. Building and maintaining healthy relationships.
Responsible decision-makingMaking ethical and respectful choices about personal behavior and relationships, and evaluating the consequences of decisions.

It’s up to you to decide what you want your students to focus on — but we’ll get to that soon!

Why is social emotional learning important?

Social emotional learning equips students with skills they’ll use well after they leave school.

For almost two decades, social emotional learning has been an essential part of the way students learn in a rapidly changing society. 

Plus, SEL impacts academic outcomes for students of all backgrounds.

Let’s dive into the research.

A 2011 meta-analysis on the effectiveness of social emotional learning found students in schools with high-quality SEL programs showed an average gain of 11% in academic achievements.

For every dollar schools invest in SEL, they see an average long-term return of 11 dollars in their school and the wider community.

In 2017, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development began a study that examined the social emotional skills of 10- and 15-year-old students around the world. While the results won’t be in until late 2020, the study is examining the best conditions for building essential social emotional skills in students, under five categories:

  • Openness to experience
  • Agreeableness (collaboration)
  • Extraversion (engaging with others)
  • Conscientiousness (task performance)
  • Emotional stability (emotional regulation)
OECD social emotional learning competencies chart
Source: OECD

The earlier SEL skills are developed, the better.

Teaching kindergarteners basic social and emotional skills “[can] have long-term academic benefits on students’ reading and vocabulary, including in high poverty schools, suggesting that SEL may assist in closing achievement gaps.”

And the benefits of social emotional learning don’t stop there. Students with strong social and emotional skills are:

  • More engaged in learning
  • Less likely to drop out of school
  • Less likely to have behavior issues
  • More confident and have higher self-esteem

Picture these results in your school. Think of how many students could you reach with the right SEL curriculum.

How to choose the best social emotional learning curriculum

Make it work for your school

Students complete social emotional learning activities in the classroom, at home or in the community.

Can your school handle an entirely new SEL program, or is it something that can be integrated into the existing curriculum?

Depending on your school’s goals and needs, social emotional learning can take different forms:

  • School-wide activities that encourage students to practice relevant skills
  • Classroom activities like peer discussion circles, conversations and teacher modeling
  • Activities integrated with classroom learning, like reflective or persuasive journal writing 

Relevant EdTech tools can also help students develop social emotional skills in different ways. 

  • Virtual or augmented reality tools can help stressed students control their emotions
  • Online learning activities and communities teach students the importance of teamwork and collaboration
  • Game-based learning platforms like Prodigy help students develop a growth mindset in an adaptive and engaging digital world. 

Want to find out more about how Prodigy helps students build math confidence and master new skills -- at no cost? Fill out the form below today to chat with a member of our team!

Social emotional learning by grade

social emotional learning strategies by grade

There’s a big difference between SEL skills in preschool and middle school. Many programs cover all grades, but some focus on age-specific skills. 

Wondering what each age range needs? Here’s what to focus on:

Preschool and kindergartenStudents just entering the classroom need to learn basic social skills: Self-regulation, following multi-step directions, playing cooperatively with other students and listening to the teacher and peers (e.g., conversational turn-taking). 

These skills can be developed through teacher modeling and age-appropriate discussions about emotions.
Elementary schoolGuided discussions, read-aloud stories and problem-solving opportunities can teach basic social skills and appropriate classroom behavior. 

The earlier parents and community members get involved, the better. Take-home materials can reinforce SEL activities at home.
Middle schoolStudents need to understand how to transition between classes and tackle new academic challenges. Staff should work together to create cohesive strategies for the classroom and extracurricular activities.

Middle school is often a time of changing social dynamics, so focusing on healthy relationships and stress management can also be beneficial.
High schoolSubject-specific strategies work best in high school, where students usually work with different teachers every day. 

High school students need to build solid relationships, manage stress, prepare for life after school and feel like valued members of their communities.

Make it research-backed

Make sure your social emotional learning curriculum is research-backed.

Even the most well-intentioned SEL curriculum can fail if it’s not supported by sound pedagogical practices, solid research and clear, actionable goals. 

The same 2011 study that connected academic gains with social emotional learning also created a framework school leaders could use to determine the effectiveness of a SEL program: SAFE.

SAFE stands for Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit. When considering a program, ask:

  • Does the program contain sequenced activities that teach relevant social emotional skills in ways that connect and build on each other?
  • Does the program promote active learning techniques like discussions, modeling or role play?
  • Is the program mainly focused on developing one or more social emotional skills relevant to my school’s needs?
  • Is the program explicit about targeting specific social emotional skills?

If your program ticks all these boxes, congrats! You’re ready to implement social emotional learning in your school.

5 Steps for bringing social emotional learning to your school

Here are five key steps to help you implement social emotional learning in a responsible, effective way:

1. Talk to your stakeholders

Students don’t just develop social emotional skills in the classroom. They cultivate them in school hallways, the larger community and at home. 

Student development occurs in multiple contexts, and some programs might require you to collaborate with other stakeholders and build connections.

A stakeholder is anyone with an interest in bringing effective social emotional learning to your school, including:

  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • District level school leaders
  • Community members and leaders
  • Counselors and other school staff

Communicate with stakeholders before, during and after implementation to understand their needs, resources, limitations and goals. Get a wide variety of perspectives using:

  • Surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Hands-on demonstrations
  • One-on-one conversations

When stakeholders feel like their opinions are taken seriously, they’re more likely to be active partners in social emotional learning.

2. Define your goals

Make sure social emotional learning matches your school's goals.

There’s a good chance you have a school mission statement or school vision. How does social emotional learning help your school reach its goals?

Use stakeholder feedback to answer key questions:

  • What specific skills do you want your students to build?
  • How will social emotional learning address challenges and opportunities in your school?
  • What resources do you have to support social emotional learning? What do you need?

Examine your school’s student data on gender, ethnicity, grade level and socioeconomic status to find particular needs that stand out.  Starting with a clear picture of what your school needs is the best way to ensure social emotional learning is effective for every student. 

Plus, every state has its own SEL standards for preschool students, while some have developed standards for early elementary or even through the end of high school. Use them to identify high-priority needs in your school.

3. Start small

Start with a small group of teachers to implement the best social emotional learning curriculum in your school

Implementing social emotional learning in your school requires thoughtful planning and implementation in coordination with all your stakeholders. 

Consider starting with a small pilot program. Talk to the teachers you think would be the most receptive to social emotional learning in their classrooms and work with them to create a plan. Then check in frequently, collect regular feedback and adjust your efforts as needed. 

If all goes well, those teachers will become experts who can guide, support and encourage the next group of teachers who join the program.

Don’t try to do everything all at once, and make sure you regularly ask for feedback to assess the effectiveness of your program.

4. Give teachers the skills they need to succeed

Social emotional learning teacher professional development

Teachers overwhelmingly recognize the need for social emotional learning in the classroom. One national survey of 600 teachers found that the majority of teachers agree SEL skills:

  • Are teachable
  • Benefit students from all economic backgrounds
  • Have positive effects in and out of the classroom

But there’s a catch. The same survey also found teachers agreed that promoting social emotional learning required strong support from school leaders at all levels.  

Quality teacher professional development is the best way to ensure they’re equipped to teach social emotional skills effectively. 

In her analysis on why proper implementation of SEL is so important, developmental psychologist Kimberly Schonert-Reichl observed that:

“Teachers implement SEL programs more successfully when they have a positive attitude toward the program, are motivated to deliver it with fidelity, and are confident that they possess the skills and knowledge to do so well.”

A 2012 study on the effectiveness of SEL programs found when teachers attended more training and implemented SEL programs effectively, their students saw more positive outcomes.  

It makes sense that implementation is more successful when teachers feel they have the tools they need to bring social emotional learning to the classroom! 

Curious about how to make your teacher professional development sessions better? Check out our guide and get a downloadable checklist for your desk. 

5. Implementation

Assess the effectiveness of your social emotional learning program.

You’ve got a program, clearly defined goals and your teachers are all on board. Now it’s time to bring social emotional learning to life in your school!

According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, there are eight factors of effective SEL implementation:

FidelityWas the program delivered as intended?
DosageHow much of the program was delivered?
QualityHow competent and well-trained were the teachers delivering the program?
AdaptationWas the program changed in any way?
Participant engagementHow engaged were students?
DifferentiationWas the intervention unique, compared to other programs?
Monitoring of the control conditionWhat activities took place in the control group while the experimental group received instruction?
ReachWhat portion of eligible students participated in the intervention?

Examining these factors will help you make sure your social emotional learning is effective for your school.

Social emotional learning doesn’t stop after you’ve implemented your program. Social emotional learning must be reinforced in and outside of the classroom in consistent ways, to create opportunities for students to keep learning.

There’s a chance your first try won’t be entirely smooth -- and that’s okay. Assess and re-assess the effectiveness of your program. Measure student progress and be patient: the rewards are coming.

Final thoughts on social emotional learning

Students standing in a group working together.

The way you implement social emotional learning will be unique to your school -- and that’s the best way to do it. 

Remember, choose a program that:

  • Is backed by research
  • Meets your school’s goals
  • Empowers and equips your teachers

Adjust as necessary, and keep moving forward. It won’t happen overnight, but before you know it, you’ll see the benefits all around you.

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