The State of SEL

CASEL’s Aaliyah Samuel talks about the role of systemic SEL in schools postpandemic.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness

With the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on equitable education and student and educator mental health. As a result, providing adequate social-emotional learning to students is a high priority for today’s practicing principal.

NAESP Executive Director L. Earl Franks, Ed.D., CAE, recently discussed the importance and impact of SEL with Aaliyah Samuel, Ed.D., president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Here’s some of that conversation:

Franks: Early in the pandemic, educators recognized its social and emotional impact on students and quickly shifted their attention to meet the enormous need. How should educators fine-tune that SEL focus as we start the new school year?

Samuel: Students’ social and emotional and academic learning continues to be at the center of everything we do. Children’s hospitals are reporting that the No. 1 reason for young children being admitted is mental health-related issues.

We are also hearing from educators that they’re feeling burned out. And we’re seeing the first significant widening of the racial achievement gap in over 30 years, which is why the need for long-term, sustainable strategies that work for all students is so important.

That’s why a systemic approach to social-emotional learning is so critical. And that means SEL isn’t just an add-on, but that it’s truly integrated throughout the policies, the practice, the climate, and the culture of the school and the classrooms. Anchoring how we think about back-to-school, the new school year, and even out-of-school time, social-​emotional learning is truly at the core.

Franks: Many educators are familiar with the fundamentals of SEL from CASEL materials. How does an understanding of those fundamentals translate to high-quality, systemic SEL across multiple real-world contexts?

Samuel: Systemic SEL implementation involves four core components: building foundational support, strengthening adult social-emotional learning, promoting students’ social-​emotional learning skills, and continuous improvement—asking ourselves: How can we do this better?

When we talk about the foundational support or the infrastructure for social-emotional learning, that really means that we have to bring families, communities, and educators together to try to define a shared vision and clear goals for SEL in order to plan for our students. From there, schools need access to resources, to funding, and the proper staffing to achieve these goals.

The second [phase] is really thinking about adult competencies and capacities—and we’re including the educators, the principals, the school personnel, and the family members. We really have to understand how important the supporting roles are, because social-emotional learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom.

The third thing I think is important to highlight is that the use of evidence-based SEL programs and practices is grounded in the principles of child development and scientifically evaluated, so the goals of systemic SEL are more likely to be achieved when evidence-based approaches and strategies are used to reach students in all kinds of settings.

The last piece is assessment and data. SEL must be implemented across approaches and across the school so that the school can reflect back on its successes and challenges. [There are many] sources of data for SEL, so it’s important for every school to think about what’s the right type of data to measure progress based on the goals they set.

Franks: We know that CASEL recommends creating space for students to provide perspectives, share in decision-​making, and lead as well as initiate action. How does student voice increase engagement and further the goals of social-emotional learning?

Samuel: Student voice is truly intertwined with SEL. When we provide young people with the opportunity to use their voice, district leaders can tap into their knowledge and expertise and really help them home in on their unique and essential perspectives on their own social-emotional learning and academic opportunities. When they feel like they’re heard and valued, that increases and improves the motivation and the interest for them to be engaged in their own learning.

As we talk about social-emotional competencies and youth voice, I’d just like to reference CASEL’s five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-​making. These skills are not just academic skills; they’re not just social-emotional skills. These are lifelong skills, and skills that we will need in the workplace.

Franks: In thinking about skills and standards, we know that a conservative backlash to critical race theory and SEL has been brewing in several states. Can you contrast the tension between that backlash and the nationwide momentum toward the creation of SEL standards for K–12 education (28 states to date) and pre-K (50 states)?

Samuel: I think what we’re seeing here is really two stories. There’s the realities of what’s happening on the ground—what educators and parents are seeing—versus the national narrative and how it’s really being driven by a political agenda. The pattern we’re still seeing is a growing demand for social-emotional learning, reflecting decades of research that shows the benefits and outcomes to students, academics, mental wellness, and long-term outcomes.

To your point, more than half of the states have SEL standards or some type of guidance from pre-K to 12, and we see recent polling data that parents and teachers continue to overwhelmingly support SEL because they know it’s what’s best for their students and their kids. The more we continue to center on the needs of our kids, the more we will continue to see expansion in the demand for social-emotional learning.

Franks: Let’s turn our attention to the trauma of disadvantaged and underserved populations. CASEL says SEL can be a powerful lever for creating equity in classrooms and schools. When it comes to SEL and equity, is it possible to have one without the other?

Samuel: SEL really is about the healthy development of every child, which requires us to address barriers to opportunity and tailor supports to meet students’ needs and strengths. As we talk about the healthy development of every child, we have to think about race, ethnicity, family, income, learning ability, home language—all the different components that make up individuals.

We have to really understand the needs of every child, and that’s what we mean by SEL and equity: making sure that every single child has access to a challenging curriculum [and] high-quality instruction, that they feel safe, that they’re motivated. And that they feel valued and “seen” in their classrooms—that they have supportive relationships with caring adults and a sense of belonging and connection to their classroom.

In order to reach these universal goals, we need to tailor supports that effectively meet the different strengths and needs of kids. We have to understand where they’re coming from and who is in the classroom to be able to achieve equitable education outcomes.

Franks: To follow up on that, how can our schools, especially those at the pre-K–8 levels, ensure that school counselors, psychologists, and other student support professionals who are involved in SEL programs can provide the appropriate interventions when mental health challenges or suicide become a concern?

Samuel: School counselors, psychologists, and student support professionals can support schoolwide SEL to create alignment and a shared language around social-​emotional learning. School counselors, psychologists, and student support professionals are often critical members of the social-emotional learning team; they help inform schoolwide strategies and planning and offer expertise in evaluation. They understand what community resources are available. They can help with classroom management, strategies, and supports, and address learning challenges.

Since we know that social-​emotional learning isn’t confined to the classroom, bringing in other perspectives and support personnel is critical. Support personnel can also help create consistency as we talk about SEL goals. For example, when you know counselors are having small-group interventions, they can reinforce and align with classroom SEL goals and skills.

Franks: How can principals support teachers and staff in creating high-quality SEL systems effectively while enhancing the SEL skills that they need to cope with adversity and uncertainty, too? Why is that important?

Samuel: Principals set the tone of the entire school culture and school environment, and modeling SEL skills and practicing shared leadership are probably the most important things that a principal can do. [And] we know that principals give and give and give but often don’t understand what their own needs are. Being able to model those skills but also ensure that they are taking care of themselves is really important.

Franks: Keeping the focus on principals, how do you think principals can best advocate for SEL programs? Do they need different strategies or messaging at the district, state, and federal levels?

Samuel: Being able to strongly connect SEL and its role to academic growth is important; people want to understand how SEL leads to academic outcomes. We know that when kids are engaged—when they feel connected to the classroom and the content—they perform better. I think it’s also important for principals to use their own data and bring their own stories to life to demonstrate that impact.

Also, it’s important to talk about why they’ve selected a particular strategy or approach or program. Local context matters to be able to adapt the messaging, because every community’s needs are its own. Authenticity is key, so what works in one community may not work in another.

Franks: What challenges do you see educators facing in championing SEL practices in the coming year? And in thinking about that, where should they look for new opportunities to promote social-emotional learning?

Samuel: I think the biggest challenge educators will face is combating the misperceptions around what social-​emotional learning is, and the feeling or the tension between having to choose between academics and SEL. That tension, I think, will continue to persist until we can provide clarity around what SEL actually looks like in the classroom and in schools—[until we can] create clear connective tissue, using data to show how SEL has improved academic outcomes, and also ensure that SEL is seen as a universal strategy that is best for all kids.

As we focus on the new school year, telling these stories—providing examples that show SEL and academics in action—will be one of the easiest ways to continue to open the door for this work. It’s not really new; it is getting back to the basics of the importance of school, family, and community partnerships. Strengthening those connections will be the best lever for strong, systemic implementation of social-emotional learning.