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4 key ways ESSA can support SEL in schools

A new report details strategies educators and policymakers can use to find funding for a growing number of SEL programs

Although student achievement in core subjects is commonly used to define success, more educators agree that student success also depends on learning about intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies–commonly known as social and emotional learning, or SEL.

And while the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) doesn’t reference SEL specifically, it does offer opportunities to focus on school-based SEL. In fact, educators and policymakers can leverage ESSA funding to support SEL, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation.

Studies show that student success increases with various social and emotional skills, including self-management skills and the ability to navigate relationships. With increased acknowledgement that students need “soft” skills outside of core academic skills, interest in SEL programs and interventions has increased as well.

(Next page: Funding streams to support SEL; 6 recommendations for educators)

ESSA does not specifically mention SEL, but it does give states increased flexibility when using federal funds, as long as the programs funded are backed by evidence. Various social and emotional programs meet ESSA’s three tiers of evidence requirements.

Several ESSA funding streams can support SEL: Title IV (21st Century Schools); Title I (Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged); and Title II (Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High-Quality Teachers, Principals, or Other School Leaders).

The authors identified 60 SEL interventions evaluated at U.S.-based K–12 schools that met evidence requirements for Tiers I–III. The majority of those programs are in urban elementary schools, and many of those interventions have already been validated with samples from students from low-income families or from racial/ethnic minority groups.

The most common benefit among all those evidence-based interventions is a positive impact on students’ intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. Other programs demonstrated increased academic attainment and achievement and improvements in disciplinary actions and school climate.

The authors offer a number of recommendations to help identify funding and support for SEL, including:
1. Incorporate measures of social and emotional competencies into needs assessments. Regardless of whether ESSA requires a needs assessment for drawing on a particular funding stream, schools and local education agencies should consider carrying out assessments.
2. Address local conditions to promote effective SEL implementation. Adopting an evidence-based intervention does not guarantee results that match those found in the reviewed research.
3. Take advantage of Tier IV flexibility if needs cannot be met by interventions with stronger evidence. Although some funding streams require interventions to meet Tiers I through III, others permit the use of funds for Tier IV interventions.
4. Provide professional development and other supports to build educators’ capacity to gather and use evidence of intervention effectiveness. Gathering and reading peer-reviewed literature to glean information about evidence is a time-consuming and resource-intensive process that may be impractical for most teachers to undertake.
5. Consider a variety of SEL programs and strategies when designing approaches to improve students’ social and emotional competencies. Stand-alone interventions are not the only way schools can promote social and emotional competencies.
6. Continue to improve measurement of social and emotional competencies. The studies reviewed for this project relied on a variety of assessments of students’ social and emotional competencies.

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Laura Ascione

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