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SEL should be an easy sell for U.S. schools and districts

We can no longer afford to ignore the power of SEL to help create safe and nurturing learning environments

In light of tragic events that have put a spotlight on school safety issues, it’s more important than ever to understand the value of students’ social and emotional learning (SEL). While many districts have started conversations about SEL and its correlation to student success, it’s time to start acting.

The majority of students face daunting socioeconomic and emotional pressures. An alarmingly high number of students experience trauma at home, and their attitudes towards learning can vary due to these outside factors. In fact, studies show that up to 60 percent of all high school students are “chronically disengaged” from their own learning.

Our constantly evolving digital world is another factor that plays into student achievement. Cyberbullying has become more and more common, and a remarkable 20 percent of middle school students reported seriously contemplating suicide in a survey conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center. Although these statistics are frightening, districts are finding ways to implement support into curriculum to avoid these and other tragedies.

How can SEL help?
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

In practice, teaching SEL involves fostering students’ analytical, communication, and collaborative skills through a combination of direct instruction and student-centered learning.

The short-term benefits include not only a safer and more inclusive school environment, but also improved academic performance. Students who have mastered SEL competencies achieve better grades, are more engaged in learning and in the school community, and tend to avoid risky behaviors.

Long-term benefits of comprehensive SEL programs include breaking the cycle of poverty, better jobs and careers, increased civic engagement, and decreased criminal activity.

Bringing SEL to schools: Use success stories to facilitate buy-in
Despite research showing the benefits of SEL, some stakeholders in education are reluctant to fully embrace it. Responsibility for students’ social and emotional growth can be seen as a gray area to be dealt with outside of school. Yet, in districts where SEL has been implemented the results have been eye-opening:

  • Since implementing SEL in 2012, the Washoe County (NV) School District reports increased graduation rates from 55 percent to 75 percent. SEL is a key strategy in the district’s goal to achieve a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020.
  • At the Austin (TX) Independent School District, schools with more years in SEL are showing better attendance rates, fewer discretionary removals, and higher feelings of safety among students.
  • After just one to two years of SEL, select sites in Metro Nashville (TN) Public Schools have reported a 33-percent reduction in disciplinary referrals, 60 percent fewer suspensions, and a 23-percent learning gap decrease among limited-English-proficiency students.

One reason why SEL is so effective is that it does not try to replace the role of the school or community in the child’s education, but rather acts as a partner. SEL shapes interactions between students and adults at all levels, creating a welcoming environment that fosters participation.

SEL is not a single program or teaching method. It involves an integrated approach across classrooms, schools, districts, homes, and communities.

Using data to ensure SEL effectiveness
SEL indicators are offshoots of SEL competencies that can be measured, tracked, and analyzed. For example, if a student needs to improve in the self-management SEL competency, they may demonstrate a high level of impulsiveness. By monitoring this data, educators can help students avoid behaviors that can impede academic performance.

SEL sets students up for success by helping them work together and adopt a fresh mindset focused on self-care. We can no longer afford to ignore the power of SEL to help create safe and nurturing learning environments.

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