Don’t ignore direct SEL instruction

At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country.

Throughout the past year, we have been incredibly fortunate to help build and interact with an amazing community of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, students, and other proponents of whole child educationMany of our readers will write to us with their own stories and opinions about the future of education, and we view it as part of our goal to help share high-impact stories with as wide of an audience as possible.

The following piece was authored by William Rost, a research intern with the Thomas B. Formham Institute. He first moved to Washington D.C. to pursue his undergraduate degrees in secondary education and history at the Catholic University of America. After graduating, he taught Social Studies at a private D.C. middle school for six years. In spring of 2021, Will completed his master’s degree in education policy at the George Washington University. His research interests include social-emotional learning, education inequities, teacher attrition, and teacher shortages.

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Advocates for social and emotional learning (SEL) have pushed for schools to embrace the teaching of healthy life skills to students. This can take many forms, from school-wide policies that foster a positive and exemplary culture for students, to a program where teachers are taught to model behaviors in their classes for students to learn from, to a course where social and emotional skills are taught from a curriculum.

According to Fordham’s recent parent survey on SEL, some parents prefer schools take an indirect approach, especially moms and dads who identify as Republican. This leads Adam Tyner, the report’s author, to conclude that schools shouldn’t “ignore the indirect methods do develop SEL,” such as “when teachers assign historical or literary fiction about characters who struggle to overcome a challenge or hold their students accountable for completing their homework.” Republican parents are also more inclined to express concerns that the values taught through SEL would conflict with their own values. Likewise, majorities of all parent types agreed that there is not enough time in the day to teach core academics and SEL, which could indicate concerns of SEL taking away from the class time required for successful academic achievement.

These points are well taken, but research and my experience teaching social studies to sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders at an all-boys school for the past six years suggests that we should also find explicit ways to foster social and emotional learning.

At my school, every Monday’s homeroom class period was devoted to a curriculum-guided SEL class that began with an open dialogue circle where students shared news of their lives, whether it be positive or negative. We then launched into the lesson outlined in the curriculum, covering topics such as non-verbal and verbal communications skills, emotional regulation strategies, or how to be assertive without being aggressive. During the pandemic, participation in these talks increased, with many students jumping at the opportunity to express what they were going through. Whether it be about their difficulties getting along with siblings, fights with friends, or struggles with depression, it was remarkable to see these students put everything on the line in front of their peers. And they benefited greatly from it.

So why an explicit approach? And what about parents’ concerns about teaching SEL? First, the types of difficult conversations I experienced with my students may not come up naturally in typical classroom settings, and not all teachers have the ability to properly address them if they do—especially those without formal training in SEL instruction. The more explicit approach that my school took guaranteed that important skills and development were addressed clearly, directly, and effectively.

Second, an explicit approach to SEL is a strategy that’s supported by other notable organizations, including CASEL, one of the lead groups promoting SEL research and implementation, and Hanover Research, who labels it as a “best practice” for schools implementing SEL. Worries of SEL taking away precious time from core academics is understandable, and some SEL curricula, like Caring School Communities, can serve as their own classes with daily thirty-minute lessons. But research has shown that improving students’ social and emotional skills through direct teaching can boost not just their well-being, but also their academic performance. So while the most intensive version of direct SEL instruction may take up some daily class time, it can also translate to academic improvement for students. Likewise, schools can get creative with when they implement SEL to minimize its disruptiveness, as my school had done.

Third, given the intensity of recent debates over what is included in school curricula, of course some parents would be concerned that a class called social and emotional learning would contain values that conflict with their own. But the truth, as revealed by the Fordham survey, is that large majorities of parents already support schools teaching SEL-related skills, such as how to “empathize with the feelings of others” or how to “approach challenges in a positive, optimistic way.” The curriculum implemented in my school had no inherent pieces on teaching grand societal values or beliefs, only social and emotional skill sets. Though I cannot say that there’s no such SEL curriculum anywhere in America that contains decisive values, the purpose of social and emotional learning is not to instill societal or political beliefs into students.

Fordham’s new survey shows some differences regarding how parents want to see SEL implemented in their child’s school. But it also finds broad support for schools’ role in developing those skills. Whether the method of doing so is direct or indirect, it’s encouraging to see that the majority of parents understand the importance of their child’s social and emotional development.

This post was originally published on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s website.

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