At Inside SEL, our mission is to act as a megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country. On a regular basis, our team speaks with administrators, educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers who are innovating within the field of SEL and works to help share their stories.
Earlier this month, we connected with Polly Stansell, VP of Product at Committee for Children, to learn more about Second Step’s new web-based curriculum and the shifting landscape of SEL curriculum in 2021.
With the world of K–12 education turned upside down during these past 12 months, it’s clear that the intensity and range of students’ needs have increased. When was a web-based curriculum conceived of and what were some of the key principles upon which the new offering was built?
Polly Stansell: For more than four decades, we’ve worked with district administrators, principals, and other education leaders to help children thrive through social-emotional development. Our long-standing commitment to listening to these leaders’ voices has helped us continuously improve our research- and evidence-based social-emotional learning (SEL) programs. In 2017, this led us to start planning the development of our Second Step® Elementary digital program.
We were excited to develop a fully web-based curriculum, knowing the program’s digital format would enable us to make continuous improvements. We conducted extensive field research early on, talking to educators, students, principals, and parents to find out what they wanted in a digital SEL program. Their answer was a program that was research-based, easy to implement, developmentally appropriate for students, engaging, culturally relevant, and comprehensive. Additionally, they wanted a program that included a robust set of accessible resources to support teachers and students during and beyond the classroom lessons. These findings became our guiding principles.
Our new curriculum would also need to align with the five social-emotional competencies set by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness—with a design that used an evidence-based learning framework that included opportunities for formative assessment. It was also essential that we develop the program through a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens. In addition to featuring a diverse representation of characters and individuals throughout our lessons, we were intentional about creating opportunities to elevate student voice and choice, while promoting and affirming students’ developing sense of self and understanding of others.
The result is the Second Step Elementary digital program, which works within our newly expanded family of SEL programs to offer a holistic approach to SEL. When implemented holistically, with a coordinated, community-wide approach, SEL can build stronger communities and support inclusive, equitable learning experiences. With the addition of our digital program, we’re excited to give schools a new option for implementing SEL and hope to serve as many classrooms as possible.
How does the new offering align to existing SEL frameworks and incorporate research (on developmentally appropriate content and implementation science) into the curriculum?
Polly Stansell: The new program is based on our evidence-based Second Step® Elementary classroom kits and aligns with the CASEL core SEL competencies. Those competencies are woven in throughout the digital program to help kids develop executive-function skills, healthy peer and adult relationships, growth mindset and goal-setting skills, empathy, and problem-solving skills.
In order to make program content developmentally appropriate, our researchers dug into the science behind how, and at what ages, elementary school students develop specific social-emotional skills. With this information, the researchers developed a scope and sequence that our instructional designers then used to create lessons differentiated by grade and based on students’ developing skills.
Can you walk us through how an educator might use the new program to virtually deliver SEL lessons to students?
Polly Stansell: The program lessons were designed to be taught in person, but with some modifications they can be just as effective when delivered remotely. There’s no single approach to modifying what works for all classrooms; the best adaptations for a lesson will depend on not just the technology available to the educator and their students, but also on the educator’s knowledge of what works best for their students. This includes students’ learning preferences, access to the internet, stress levels, and privacy concerns that could affect students’ ability to participate in online instruction.
It’s important for educators to keep the purpose of the activities in mind when adapting lessons. When adapting an in-person lesson for virtual learning, we suggest that teachers think about the purpose of each part of the lesson and the instructional strategies used so they can find an equivalent that works. For every lesson, we want teachers to make sure students have a chance to understand the purpose of the lesson; see new skills (including thought processes being modeled for them); describe or interpret new learning and practice new skills; and demonstrate what they’ve learned.
Many of our Second Step Elementary digital program lessons include opportunities for kids to work with partners and in small groups, and they also allow time for kids to process their learning as a whole class. In a remote setting, instructional strategies that support SEL activities can include encouraging younger students to turn and talk with a stuffed animal, doll, or action figure instead of a classmate; using the chat window with the whole class (such as calling on a volunteer to type a response or allowing all students to respond); and using online discussion boards or other collaborative tools.
Engaging students in online learning is a topic that many educators have grappled with over the last year. What features are included in the new Second Step Elementary digital program to foster high levels of engagement?
Polly Stansell: We considered how to maximize student engagement in every step of the design process. For us, this means that students are actively involved in what they’re learning, have opportunities to apply this learning to their own lives, and can bring in their own lived experiences. Our lessons utilize a wide variety of instructional strategies and multimedia supports meant to help kids think, move, and interact with the content and each other. We also provide teachers with guidance on how to adapt lessons to ensure that their students can connect with the content in meaningful ways.
Research shows that students are most engaged when they’re adequately supported throughout the learning process. We achieve this by using a gradual release of responsibility. Kids are given the right amount of support when learning and practicing new social-emotional skills, so they eventually gain the competence needed to independently apply those skills to their daily lives.
How does a web-based offering open up new opportunities to interweave culturally relevant pedagogy into the curriculum?
Polly Stansell: Our program’s digital delivery provides teachers with support to help them engage with students from diverse backgrounds by using more varied scenarios that are relevant to today’s students. We know social-emotional competence can lead to the behaviors, emotions, and attitudes that support diversity, equity, and inclusion. With this goal in mind, the Second Step Elementary digital program includes lessons that explicitly teach students how to show others kindness, take others’ perspectives, act with empathy, and explore how our varied past experiences shape our point of view.
As part of supporting students in upholding their cultural identities, the lessons include diverse characters, individuals, and situations that provide opportunities for kids to see themselves in the material. In addition, students gain exposure to situations that may be quite different from what they know or experience in their daily lives.
A benefit of the program being web-based is our ability to collect and act on teachers’ feedback on topics related to cultural relevancy. Over time, the Second Step Elementary digital program will not only be updated to reflect the most-recent research but will also reflect updated scenarios and applications of social-emotional skills that resonate with learners. Research shows that students are more likely to engage if they feel content is relatable and represents their experiences.
More and more often, it seems educators are partnering with caregivers to extend SEL into the home. Does the new Second Step Elementary web-based curriculum include activities or engagement opportunities with family members? (Or are there thoughts to include this in the future?)
Polly Stansell: It does. Parents and caregivers have an important role to play when it comes to reinforcing social-emotional skills at home. To facilitate the connection between home and school, we offer a take-home letter that introduces families to the program and gives an overview of what kids are learning throughout the year. Educators also have access to a parent overview presentation deck that can be used to guide parent and family education sessions (such as open houses, back-to-school night, curriculum night, and so on). We also provide teachers with ideas for weekly family communications that highlight the social-emotional skills being taught that week and include recommendations for how families can support their child’s SEL at home. All of these resources will eventually be available in ten languages (Spanish is currently in development).
Because the program is web-based, we can also continue to add resources—like episodes from our award-winning podcast, The Imagine Neighborhood™—that extend SEL into the home and provide content that families can enjoy and learn from together.
While many districts across the country plan to reintegrate some students for in-person learning, it seems that most reopening plans will still include a significant amount of hybrid learning. How do you recommend elementary schools use the new digital offering in hybrid environments?
Polly Stansell: In hybrid learning environments, lessons can be adapted for both in-person and remote instruction by varying the ways in which kids interact with each other and the material; for example, teachers may want to have group discussions in person and allow their students to complete other parts of the lesson on their own time. It comes down to personal preference—it will be up to the individual educator to decide which parts of a lesson are best taught in person, and which can work well as part of asynchronous learning.
Overall, we’re incredibly excited about what the Second Step Elementary digital program offers in terms of increased accessibility, flexibility, inclusivity, and scalability. Through digital delivery, we’re well-positioned to continue evolving our offerings to meet the needs of the communities we serve and deepen our impact on schools. As we navigate the return to classrooms, that feels more important than ever.