Social-emotional learning in schools is so much more than ‘nicey-nice’–it can be a lifeline

More than a million U.S. school children are now enrolled in districts that have rolled out or are in the process of rolling out Social Emotional Learning (also sometimes called “whole child” learning).

Austin happens to be an early adopter of this kind of learning, and I had an incredible opportunity last week to visit a freshman seminar class at Austin High School, one of the school’s many classes focused on social-emotional learning strategies.

The SEL embrace is mostly due to a Chicago-based nonprofit research and policy organization called CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning). The aim is to comprehensively weave social-emotional learning into the very fabric of early-adopting school districts and each elementary, middle and high school.

It’s hard to overstate the potential impact of SEL. A 2011 meta-analysis in the journal Child Development showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in a properly implemented SEL program versus students who didn’t participate in SEL. And a 2015 study in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis demonstrated a roughly $11 benefit for every $1 spent on a rigorous SEL program. It’s worth noting, too, that this research suggests SEL works in suburban, urban and rural school settings (though researchers didn’t look at as many rural settings).

There’s a misconception that SEL includes “just anything nice.”

A new approach to teaching

Not quite. SEL is a systematic approach to teaching kids how to understand and manage emotions, achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, maintain relationships and make responsible decisions. Another misconception is that SEL is somehow only for troubled kids, which is sort of like saying healthy eating and exercise are only for overweight people.

Nope. They’re good for everyone, though may be particularly powerful in certain circumstances.

So many schools are interested in implementing SEL now because the research presents a convincing “value proposition.” After visiting Austin High, I wouldn’t have needed a lick of research to convince me of SEL’s value.

Student ambassadors in Austin said what they learned with SEL was merely reinforcement of what their parents also model. But a handful of students confided that for various reasons – extreme poverty and serious health conditions in the family, for example – their parents couldn’t model ideal social-emotional skills.

I was touched by how openly these students shared their stories. One young man choked up when he talked of how his mother had just suffered a second stroke and that being in his freshman seminar class was a saving grace. He’d learned how to be resilient, but also how to ask for support.

Another young man said he’d been “generally mediocre” in school but learned how to calm down, focus and plan in SEL classes. He’s now the class valedictorian and is–believe it or not–heading off to Harvard in the fall.

One student said his parents quit school in ninth grade and that he used to be the kid who got sent to the principal all the time. Now he’s graduating in the top 2 percent of his class and a half dozen colleges have already sent him acceptance letters.

Austin High has slashed discipline referrals by half since implementing SEL. Teen pregnancy and drug use are down. Dropout rates have been reduced by 30 percent and the number of “freshmores” (kids in the second year of high school who have failed too many classes to be considered sophomores) went from 60 in 2010 to five in 2016.

Principal Amy Taylor, who has worked in education for 21 years, said she’s never been more impressed: “I have yet to see the implementation of a philosophy as strong as SEL in the secondary schools.”

Personally, I saw a major shift for my own son when he started attending a school in fourth grade that was SEL focused. Though our school wouldn’t be considered one that implemented a rigorous, evidence-based SEL curriculum by the standards of the researchers and other SEL advocates I’ve met recently, it has still been enough to make a difference in his life.

I don’t need to imagine the possibilities when a child goes to a model SEL school, though–so many kids at Austin High showed me.

Of course, not every kid will go to Harvard, or even go to college, just because his or her school focuses on social-emotional learning. But what I saw is essentially what most schools see when an SEL program is properly implemented: many more balanced, motivated kids.

And there’s something that’s even more daunting than finding instructional minutes in an already tight day; it’s making sure the adults that surround kids– parents, teachers, administrators and school boards–also have better social-emotional skills. Climate and culture of the school is integral.

With so much despair and divisiveness in the country right now, SEL feels like nothing short of a beacon of hope. As one teacher told me, SEL might lead to higher test scores but the most important thing is that it also might mean a better world with less hate for future generations.


Photos of Austin High SEL-dedicated teachers Leslie Oduwole and Keeth Matheny by Austin High student Abby Affle.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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