How Schools Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning

Fourteen years ago, Cleveland public schools turned the rooms where students were sent for in-school suspension into places where students having behavioral issues could go to talk to a counselor, do homework or just relax in a beanbag chair.

“They’re designed to have intervention focus rather than discipline focus,” says Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “The goal is to provide a support center to address the behaviors that get in the way of learning.”

Cleveland’s “planning centers,” as these rooms are called, are part of the district’s rigorous implementation of social-emotional learning, or SEL — the process of learning how to manage emotions, set goals and maintain healthy relationships.

Throughout the district in Cleveland, and in most districts across the country, SEL practices are integrated into instruction, school culture and discipline policies. They may show up in the instructions for a chemistry lab assignment or in the ways younger children are guided to resolve a playground dispute, in addition to being presented as stand-alone lessons.

[READ: Understanding School-Based Mental Health Services.]

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Educators and adolescent mental health experts describe SEL as a broad but detailed system of skill-building exercises designed to help students from pre-kindergarten all the way through high school learn how to be self-aware and respectful of others.

Where it is implemented fully, there are generally grade-level standards and benchmarks for SEL, in the same way there are standards for math and reading, and students may be assessed several times a year to determine how well they have mastered the SEL standards for their grade.

The goal is to help students build skills they will need for the rest of their lives while creating safe learning environments.

“As you would teach students arithmetic, grammar or punctuation, social-emotional skills are fundamental to everyone’s life,” says Dr. Ravinderpal Singh, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Fairfax, Virginia. “They foster connection, and when you connect with someone, you feel safe and the brain opens up to learning.”

[READ: What Parents Need to Know About Social-Emotional Development.]

According to the nonprofit Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning, or CASEL, social-emotional learning is focused on five skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Those five skills can be broken down into specific, age-appropriate practices.

For example, pre-kindergartners in Cleveland schools practice meeting these SEL goals, among others:

— Describe self using several basic characteristics.

— Identify and label feelings.

— Adapt to transition from home to school.

By the time students reach fifth grade, they are practicing more advanced SEL skills, including:

— Communicate frustrations and anger appropriately.

— Use calming strategies.

— Discuss stereotyping and its negative impact on others.

— Identify unwelcome teasing or bullying behaviors.

The Impact of SEL Programs

Cleveland schools adopted a district-wide SEL framework in 2008, a year after a high school freshman in the district shot five people at school before killing himself. The district responded to the incident with metal detectors and security. But the following year, they rolled out “Humanware,” an initiative to create safe and supportive schools by teaching and integrating SEL practices.

Twice a year, the district administers a survey to assess student understanding of SEL goals for their grades, asking what students observe when conflicts arise or while working in small groups.

For the first eight years, Gordon says, elementary school student scores were good and improved steadily, but high school student scores were terrible. Then in 2018 the new ninth graders, who had been exposed to SEL every year since kindergarten, started high school and SEL scores shot up dramatically.

The district also finds a connection between higher SEL scores, reduced out-of-school suspensions and higher reading and math achievement.

“We can’t say for sure that one predicts the other, but seeing the improvement gives us the will to continue what we’re doing,” Gordon says.

[READ: How to Instill a ‘Growth Mindset’ in Kids.]

Social-Emotional Learning and Academic Achievement

Educators say that children, adolescents and teens learn better — in any subject — when they know how to regulate their own emotions.

The research bears this out. A 2011 meta-analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs found that students in these programs showed significant gains in academic achievement as well as social-emotional skills compared to peers.

Educators say that the reason SEL practices enhance student achievement is because learning is a social process and schools are highly social places. Students learn from each other, they say, which means that relational skills aren’t just good for addressing conflict or behavioral issues, they’re part of the learning process. Students who have practiced how to collaborate, compromise and communicate tend to be more successful.

“Coming out of the pandemic, there have been a lot of questions about lost instructional time,” says Dr. Aaliyah Samuel, president and CEO of CASEL, which supports district programs in more than 40 states. “People have asked, ‘Do we focus on academics or SEL?’ The answer is, we should be integrating the two together.”

Building Skills for Life Success

School settings that support students’ social-emotional development are more important than ever, she says, as parents and educators struggle to help young people with mental health problems. School-based SEL programs have been shown to reduce emotional distress, and a 2021 study in the UK found that SEL practices reduced student depression and anxiety in the short term.

But Samuel and others argue that building SEL skills isn’t just important for students facing mental health or other challenges. The skills are important for all students and are transferrable to life beyond school.

By their senior year of high school, students in Cleveland are asked to develop strategies to help their peers stay focused during the last few months of the year and to “demonstrate tact yet compassion in altering the composition” of their peer group, if necessary, as the year progresses.

“It’s important to give kids an opportunity to practice these skills in the classroom,” Samuel says. “Employers tell us that hard-core tech skills are easy to replace. What’s harder to replace are employees who have strong social-emotional skills.”

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