Committee for Children’s VP of Product on the “More Than Just Okay” Campaign

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.

Last month month, we connected with Polly Stansell, VP of Product at Committee for Children, to learn more about the global non-profit’s “More Than Just Okay” campaign.

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Last month, Committee for Children launched the “More Than Just Okay” initiative. What was the impetus behind this new campaign?

Polly Stansell: There has been so much talk about getting students back to “normal” this school year. We at Committee for Children believe students deserve so much more than just normal or baseline—our kids deserve to thrive inside and outside the classroom. We want families and educators to understand the unique opportunity we have right now to invest in our children’s wellness so they can be healthy and happy learners at school and healthy and happy humans in their everyday lives. One essential way to do that is through the prioritization of social-emotional skill-building at home and school.

We released the video “More Than Just Okay” to help shed light on the value and importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) for kids, what it looks like, and how it supports academics, wellness, and critical life-skills development that our students so desperately need right now. A big part of that initiative is to encourage parents and schools to work together to ensure these skills are taught both at home and in school. 

When did the term “social and emotional learning” start to come under scrutiny from a political perspective? 

Polly Stansell: It’s important to remember that educators have been using the term social-emotional learning for decades to describe a higher level of cognitive skills that are fundamental to helping children succeed in the classroom, in their careers, and in life. That’s why families want kids to learn these skills, but the terminology can admittedly get confusing. It’s clear that once we stop using education-speak and explain to families that SEL is about helping kids develop everyday life skills such as decision-making,  stress management, and self-esteem, they get it and want it for their kids yesterday. 

Within the last year or so, there’s been a lot of misinformation going around about SEL, and as a result, SEL has, unfortunately, been politicized and misrepresented by some. We’ve learned that much of the pushback against SEL among families and communities stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what SEL is and why it matters for kids. 

Over the decades, working with families and schools to build students’ social-emotional life skills, Committee for Children has developed a deep understanding of how important it is to ensure folks have clarity around what SEL is and how it can benefit their children. 

It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that schools have been teaching kids social-emotional skills such as communication, problem-solving, and confidence for generations, not only because it prepares them to thrive in the real world, but because these skills are valued by employers. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want for our children—the skills to live happy, healthy, and successful lives?

What insights have we learned over the past 6–12 months about parental support (and pushback) around SEL?

Polly Stansell: We’ve done a lot of work in the past year to better understand what is happening in the political landscape around SEL and what parents really think of SEL in schools. Our work and our programs are data-driven and research-backed, so we’re always interested in what the data say. This past spring, we conducted some opinion polling with Benenson Strategy Group about SEL sentiment that showed us parents and families across demographic and partisan lines overwhelmingly agree that teaching these critical life skills is a part of quality education. 

We found that when we broke down what social-emotional learning was for parents in plain terms and explained that it helps their kids learn essential life skills such as communication, decision-making, and self-discipline, there was broad support for SEL. Here are a few of our most notable findings:

  • 8 in 10 parents who say their child receives SEL at school want the school to maintain or increase SEL. It’s a similar story among the parents who don’t believe their child is being taught social-emotional skills—they support bringing SEL to their classroom.
  • Parents largely view the term “social-emotional learning” positively and understand it’s about social skills, understanding and managing emotions, and coping with challenges. Despite some criticism of SEL by a vocal minority, almost no parents associate the term “social-emotional learning” with anything negative. 
  • More than 75% of parents believe SEL helps create positive learning environments and gives children the skills they need to succeed in school and in the future.
  • 3 in 4 parents agree that schools and families should work together to teach kids the social-emotional skills they need to thrive.

Overall, we’ve learned there is a crucial need to communicate this strong and broad support for SEL. We need to let families and communities know that they don’t have to choose between academics and teaching essential life skills to their children. We know that kids who learn social-emotional skills do better academically. It’s important to communicate that to families and communities as well as help provide educators with resources to do the same.

We know that families play an essential role in fostering their children’s social-emotional learning. What are some best practices that schools should consider when it comes to engaging families in social-emotional learning efforts?

Polly Stansell: At Committee for Children, we know that parents and caregivers are children’s lifelong teachers and support system and play an indispensable role in their development––SEL in the classroom is meant to enhance that support and ensure that children are learning and thriving throughout the day. When schools, families, and communities work together, we can make sure all students have rich opportunities to learn and practice important skills that help them collaborate, solve problems, and succeed in school, college, career, and life. As educators, we need to take every opportunity to engage with families about social-emotional skill building. 

Some additional for engaging families in SEL efforts include:

  • Communicate with families that you’re prioritizing SEL school or districtwide; include them and get everyone on board 
  • Provide the rationale for why you are prioritizing SEL
    • Reinforce that SEL supports academic success
    • Communicate that SEL supports kids and their sense of belonging; when kids feel like they belong and want to be at school, they do better
    • Remind them that SEL sets students up to be college, career, and life ready 
  • Use language to talk about SEL that matches what your community cares about; it might be that you’re talking about SEL as life skills or skills that are foundational to all learning. Explain SEL by contextualizing it to things that matter to them and their child (e.g., safety, their child making and keeping friends, being able to ask for help, solving problems, building confidence, etc.)
  • Include regular communications, through multiple channels, on your SEL initiative 

We also know from research that explicit SEL instruction is more effective when parents and guardians model the same skills and behaviors that students are mastering in the classroom. How can teachers and administrators best communicate with families about the ways in which SEL is being taught in their classrooms?

Polly Stansell: It all starts with developing relationships between educators and families through bi-directional communication, where both the educators and families are engaged in a dialogue about SEL. In doing so, families are informed of the skills being taught in the classroom, and they can reinforce them, at home, using similar language. Effective two-way communication provides an established way in which to provide feedback about what is working at home and in school and what is not.

Here are a few things teachers and administrators can do to communicate with families about SEL:

  • Communicate directly about why your school is teaching social-emotional skills and families’ role in it
  • Highlight your SEL program during back-to-school events or have an “SEL Family Night” where educators and families develop a healthy partnership so all children can thrive
  • Use the resources that come with your school’s existing SEL resources (like the Second Step Family Engagement resources, etc.) to connect with families on a regular basis
  • Provide regular updates on the social-emotional skills that are being taught in the classroom
  • Use videos to show what SEL looks like in the classroom
  • Provide a suggested reading list of books and articles about social-emotional skills and the benefits of teaching them in the classroom and at home

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Polly Stansell is a former teacher and serves as vice president of product at Committee for Children, a global nonprofit organization best known for its research- and evidence-based Second Step® social-emotional learning (SEL) programs for Early Learning, Elementary, and Middle School students. In her role, Polly oversees the Second Step family of SEL programs and ensures the tools developed are effective and engaging for kids, educators, and families.

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