Social-emotional learning (SEL) has taken a hit over the past two years, and now behavioral issues in K–12 schools are on the rise. It’s time to reintroduce SEL and demonstrate its results.
Families and educators broadly agree that K–12 education should include developing life skills and good citizenship in addition to academic proficiency. This could include supporting students’ ability to treat others with respect, handle conflict, regulate emotions, and build self-confidence. But this type of learning is increasingly encountering controversy and confusion in communities, especially when it’s called social-emotional learning (SEL). Let’s clear up what SEL is and isn’t — and how educators can start measuring its impact.
Across the country, public school curricula are becoming increasingly politicized. Misinformation about SEL is spreading too, with some people conflating it with critical race theory. In this context, it’s becoming more challenging for educators to develop students’ citizenship and self-development skills without controversy. Yet at the same time, the disruption and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic exponentially increased the need for SEL in schools.
Numerous research studies have demonstrated that when quality SEL programs are evidence-based and use a continuous improvement approach, they yield positive results for students and families. For district leaders to demonstrate the purpose and promise of SEL, it’s critical to measure and communicate those outcomes.
Understand What SEL Is and Why Opinions Around It Are Divided in K–12 Education
So, what is SEL and why is it becoming more controversial? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the method of helping students “develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
Research has shown that healthy brain development requires social relationships, emotional experiences, and cognitive opportunities, which SEL initiatives can address. Since the mid-1990s, considerable evidence has also documented that SEL, when implemented well, yields better academic achievement for K–12 students.
Educators understand that SEL isn’t tied to any political agenda and has bipartisan support. Parents largely support teaching soft skills (such as interpersonal skills, managing emotions, and resiliency) in schools. But some families and community members are skeptical of the name or believe that SEL is part of diversity, equity, and inclusion programming, which many consider a divisive topic.
In a survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 44% of parents responded positively to the name “life skills” for SEL-related programs but ranked “social-emotional learning” as the second least supported name. Districts may want to consider how they name and frame SEL programs and intentionally communicate with families to deepen their understanding of SEL and how it supports students’ long-term success in becoming productive members of their communities.
Download Hanover’s SEL Program Planning Guide to see the best practices for post-pandemic SEL planning and evaluation.
Done Well, SEL Can Support K–12 Students’ Mental and Emotional Well-Being
Most students have returned to in-person learning following the massive disruptions of the pandemic. These students, however, are demonstrating greater difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions inside and outside the classroom, and they’re experiencing more mental health issues.
- In October 2021, three prominent pediatric medical associations declared a state of emergency in national child and adolescent mental health with rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and suicide among youth soaring because of pandemic-related stressors.
- In a national survey from the American Psychological Association, one-third of teachers reported experiencing at least one incident of verbal or threatening violence from students following COVID-19.
- A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey shows 55% of teenagers reported experiencing emotional abuse by a parent or another adult in the home during the pandemic.
Districts and schools are scrambling to meet students’ current social, emotional, and mental health needs. In the first two years of the pandemic, districts understandably focused attention on meeting students’ basic needs in the home, such as food security and technology access. Now that schools have reopened, supporting students’ self-development is the next priority. This is a pivotal time for district and school leaders to examine what’s working in SEL, what could be improved, and how to best meet students’ evolving mental and emotional needs.
Looking for program implementation support? Download our toolkit Critical Steps to Successful Program Implementation.
Take a Data-Driven Approach to Measuring SEL in K–12 Education
At Hanover, one of the biggest SEL questions we get from district leaders is, “How do we know when a program is working?” This is where program evaluation comes in. But to evaluate a program, you must have clear goals and objectives against which to measure the results.
In other words, a solid SEL game plan starts with knowing where the goal post is, so everyone knows where to aim. To begin, district leaders must perform an initial SEL needs assessment to gather feedback, identify gaps, and prioritize needs. That information can be used to build an SEL plan that outlines the goals of the program. This provides the foundational baseline for how success will be measured.
When implementing an SEL program, it’s important to collect and reflect on the data throughout the school year, adjusting plans as needed to ensure fidelity to your original goals. A continuous, data-driven improvement approach will yield better student outcomes. To measure the development of students’ SEL competencies, districts can collect a range of data points, including:
- Observational data from teachers and administrators capturing classroom practices and observed behaviors among students
- Academic indicators such as performance outcomes on both summative and formative assessments
- Behavioral indicators such as attendance, behavioral disruptions and severity, rates of success with restorative resolutions
- Self-perceptions of SEL competencies collected through surveys
Additionally, districts should collect data to understand whether staff are well prepared to implement these programs and initiatives. This can include collecting information about staff members’ comprehension of SEL and its core competencies, along with gathering their perceptions of their ability to teach SEL and to integrate it into their practices.
Learn how to plan and evaluate programs using best practices in our webinar, Building System Capacity for Program Evaluations.
3 Tips for Planning Successful Social-Emotional K–12 Learning
Whether your district is infusing SEL into other learning subjects or implementing a stand-alone SEL initiative, being a listening leader with an eye toward data will inform better SEL planning and outcomes. It’s important to:
- Communicate early and often with students, families, and staff about the purpose, goals, and progress of your district’s SEL programs. Use data and specific examples to help explain how SEL programming is making a difference for students.
- Remember that SEL works when there’s a partnership between students, families, and staff. Include parents, guardians, and staff in school surveys to capture their perceptions of SEL and assess their abilities to model or teach SEL skills.
- Start evaluating whatever data you have access to now. Even anecdotal and observational data can be used to help inform SEL needs and goals.
Many districts are revisiting their strategic plans and their vision and mission statements, and some of them are prioritizing language focused on helping students to become good citizens and positive community members. As SEL becomes more prominent in educational discourse, district leaders must be ready to address skepticism and resistance by some groups, too.
At a time of great student need, it’s critical for district leaders to develop clear SEL definitions, assess needs, set goals, and measure and share progress. Using data that shows how SEL is tied to students’ abilities to build positive relationships, curb disruptive behaviors, manage anxiety and stress, and strengthen academic performance, schools and districts can help their communities to grasp and support SEL’s rightful place in schools.
— Emily Beeson, MBA, Senior Director, K–12 Research and Professional Services, Hanover Research