Social and emotional learning (SEL) has caught a big wave in American K -12 education. Googling the saying can get more than 400 million hits. It's the focus of the high-profile Aspen Institute national commission that issued its final report captured  as well as innumerable policy powwows, professional development programs, and philanthropic initiatives. It's its very own advocacy group, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), based in Chicago having a 33-member staff and most 20 blue-ribbon funders.
What is SEL exactly, and what's all the fuss about? CASEL defines SEL as \”the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and get positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and keep positive relationships, making responsible decisions.\”  The Aspen Commission frames it as \”the integration of social and emotional development with academic learning.\” 
Obvious, you say? Self-evidently desirable? Items that good schools (and parents) have always done? An appealing if nebulous concept with much to like for those on both left and right? Of course, say we. It's all regulated those activities along with an attempt for rebalancing instruction system that in recent decades has focused overmuch on reading and math scores while giving short shrift to character development, civic formation, and the cultivation of ethics among its young charges.
Hence, superintendents, principals, and policymakers are right to embrace the (age-old) notion put forward by the SEL crowd that schools are about more than academics. The educational experience itself ought to be engaging, safe, and collaborative, and its goals must transcend the cultivation of literacy and numeracy. As they embrace SEL, however, practitioners and policymakers alike have to be cautious about some clear dos and don'ts because their well-meaning efforts could also wind up making schools worse.
The case for SEL must not become an excuse to decrease attention to academic skills and data or serve to deflect educators in the centrality of academic instruction. Sensibly configured, SEL should complement instruction in reading and math, as well as history, science, civics, literature, composition, and also the arts. We're persuaded by common sense plus some decent research that kids are better in a position to master academics once they feel safe, valued, emotionally secure, and socially comfortable. After all, preparing students to become responsible citizens in a liberal democracy is a crucial part of what schools are for. Academic instruction alone doesn't cultivate that sort of competence. Both of them are essential.
Unlike academic achievement, however, that we have all manner of time-tested (if imperfect) metrics, gauging progress on the SEL front is exceptionally difficult. You may know good SEL when you see it, but it's hard to document gains, a smaller amount convincingly and reliably measure them when (and if) they occur. That elusiveness can make it tempting for educators whose schools and pupils are struggling academically to get rid of their balance and switch towards the celebration of SEL as a refuge from mediocre academic outcomes.
One people recently observed a small instance of this dynamic in an awards ceremony for secondary school principals, in which a prize winner took great pains to glowingly, lovingly depict her school like a place having a family-like atmosphere. It does really well, she said with evident and legitimate pride, at making everyone feel welcome and forging a staff-wide commitment to meeting student needs. That, however, was only after she observed-without evident concern-that her school doesn't perform all that well on conventional gauges of academic performance. This, bear in mind, is a principal receiving peer accolades for that congrats she's done like a school leader.
A principal's leadership agenda should, of course, incorporate \”making everyone feel welcome.\” But success at SEL must complement and buttress academic learning, not become a substitute or excuse because of not having enough. Different color leaves, SEL will be counted a dismal failure if it encourages educators to stay for pillowy paeans to \”happiness,\” \”self-esteem,\” and \”inclusivity\” at the expense of harder things such as character, ethics, virtue, and civility.
If SEL does tip toward the lax and banal, history suggests that it will have in all probability a relatively short shelf life, much like the self-esteem fad from the 1980s. There ended up being no solid research foundation underneath the work of California's celebrated Task Force to advertise Self-Esteem and private and Social Responsibility. On the contrary, its \”findings\” were ultimately exposed as fraudulent. Long before that, its recommendations were widely mocked for his or her feel-good soft-headedness. (We suspect this sorry excursion also played a role in the Golden State's long-term slide in academic performance.) Much the same thing sank the nationwide passion for \”values clarification\” education in the 1960s and \”outcomes-based education\” within the 1990s. These movements faltered due to a lack of evidence they worked and have become politically untenable once they came to be seen as inimical to \”traditional\” values and basic skills.
To be clear, today's most thoughtful SEL proponents strike us as serious about seeking to steer clear of the hostility to academic instruction that bedeviled those earlier efforts. Indeed, the very best evidence for SEL concerns being able to support academic learning. The authors of a worthy research summary developed for the Aspen Commission pay particular focus on \”how emotionally safe and cognitively stimulating environments bring about brain development; how brain development that supports learning depends on social experiences; and how sensitive periods in brain development align with opportunities for learning and needed supports.\”  All well and good.
But while such sentiments are compelling on paper, the question is whether this vision of SEL will win in practice. As with those earlier failed efforts, lots of educators, advocates, funders, and vendors hold their own visions of what SEL is for-and those views may not align with Aspen's no-nonsense mantra. In the end, it's quite tempting to allow efforts like SEL to tread a kinder, gentler path. It is because educators (like the majority of people) prefer to be kind than judgmental and delicate rather than hectoring. This is also, however, due to a basic asymmetry within the relationship between SEL and academics: While SEL can serve as an important enabling condition for academic achievement, the converse isn't true. It's possible to maintain excellent social and emotional shape without knowing how to multiply two-digit numbers, write a cogent paragraph, or explain what causes the Civil War. We're reminded of the unfortunate but well-documented fact that exceptionally high amounts of self-esteem and satisfaction in young Americans often go hand in glove with dangerously low levels of academic success.
A further problem is that, since the metrics now available for gauging SEL success are limited and subjective, you can assert that things are running smoothly or that \”programs are working\” largely on the basis of anecdote or cherry-picked survey data-and it's difficult for doubters to disprove such claims. This breeds uncertainty over how best to infuse SEL into schools or know whether such efforts are succeeding. Some states are relying heavily on \”school climate\” surveys, the outcomes which may estimate the state's Every Student Succeeds Act accountability plan and college report cards. We discover ourselves waiting to be believing that these tools will prove as valid and reliable as advocates hope.
Continued research, experimentation, and evaluation are certainly warranted, and an earnest resolve for these-coupled with candor about what we do and don't know-may help SEL steer clear of the pitfalls that have undone earlier efforts to succeed most of the same intuitions. There is however much more that partisans and funders should consider because they aim to deliver on SEL's promise. Within the remainder of this paper, we offer seven suggestions, born of hard experience, that may help.
1. Slow down and focus on getting it right.
2. Be clear by what SEL is and isn't.
3. Ensure that character and civic education loom large within the SEL portfolio.
4. Making schools safer is an appealing part of SEL, so long as the transcendent point is student safety, not adult agendas.
5. Parental enthusiasm for SEL is healthy, however it ought not be a free pass for academic frailty.
6. Make it a priority to develop valid, reliable, intuitive metrics for SEL-and be honest regarding their limits.
7. In celebrating \”evidence-based\” practices and inspiring further research, be wary of analysts who give short shrift to how their findings mean real life.
For example, we recall the innocent dawn of charter schooling, once the impulse to produce as many schools as quickly as possible in as numerous places as you possibly can overwhelmed the capabilities of those creating, supporting, or authorizing schools. In states for example Ohio and Texas, a large number of schools opened that fell short on instruction, managerial know-how, integrity, facilities, staffing, financing, curriculum, and far else. More than a few sleazy operators seized the opportunity to pursue their own ends. The end result would be a mixed track record and a troubling quantity of outright scandals. This tainted charter schools in many states, inviting overregulation, fueling understandable resistance, and providing talking points to political opponents.
A useful counterexample continues to be the College Board's meticulous ramp-up of their new Advanced Placement (AP) Capstone courses and pre-AP 9th grade courses, both additions to the familiar AP portfolio. Capstone is really a set of advanced research-based courses, meant to ready students for that independent learning obligations of school, while pre-AP seeks to take underprepared 9th graders and boost these to the reality that they are able to successfully tackle challenging coursework. In the two cases, the school Board has striven to make sure school and teacher preparedness before expanding use of these new offerings. That can be a elongated ramp-up has denied immediate participation with a, growing these programs slowly makes it possible to concentrate on doing them wisely and well.
When dealing with complex instructional initiatives, where execution is everything and lots of fervent but ill-prepared advocates, administrators, and educators are keen to leap on board, a calibrated rollout can be a powerful force for steering change onto a positive long-term path. There's much to become said for enthusiasm and rapid diffusion, but much more to become said for it right, which also demands considerable sophistication and self-restraint on the part of practitioners.
Saying this once, or perhaps repeating it every so often, is not enough. The desire to pay attention to rapid implementation while genially embracing a big tent approach is natural enough. Sadly, that approach won't safeguard either the perception or the practice of SEL from individuals with their very own agendas. Now you ask , what genuine advocates are prepared to do when it comes to flagging the frauds, identifying the charlatans, calling out practices that lack evidence, and otherwise helping communities separate the wheat from the chaff. Put another way, good communication is not only explaining what advocates think good SEL is but additionally taking pains to indicate what it really isn't. Doing this entails using the uncomfortable next thing of calling out those who are pitching dubious wares under the SEL banner or deploying problematic programs in their schools.
This implies that a few days of \”professional development\” for educators or the simple embrace of some favored \”best practice\” is inadequate. It will be useful, for instance, for SEL proponents to examine the way they might certify principals as school-level SEL leaders and teachers as bona fide SEL providers. Maybe schools themselves might get gold stars for it right, much as buildings get LEED certified if they are environmentally sound. We're definitely not suggesting a more sophisticated system of recent governmental regulations or education-school credentials. It might be far better for any competent private organization, backstopped by like-minded philanthropy, to produce and confer these additional credentials-and do their finest to ensure they are worth earning.
Indeed, SEL is visible as a way for educators to recover and propagate-sans religion-the emphases on virtue, integrity, and empathy that were long ago flagged by scholars such as James Coleman, Valerie Lee, and Tony Bryk as core traits of successful Catholic schools. It's also a path toward the strengthened civic education that almost everybody agrees is sorely without today's America (and the lack of that is painfully evident in our public square), encompassing issues of civic consciousness, civil engagement, and civilized behavior. Those are links that SEL advocates should forge as energetically as they perform the connection between SEL and academic achievement.
At the same time, some SEL proponents seem particularly invested in \”discipline reform\” and \”restorative justice\” because the method to help students feel at ease and promote school safety. They are doing so in a fashion that to all of us appears to egregiously overstate the evidence concerning the efficacy of these approaches while dismissing concerns or contradictory data. At issue is whether SEL will be based on its goals or by the preferred tactics of some devotees. How faithfully will it hew to the evidentiary standards the Aspen Commission championed? And just how vigorously will proponents challenge people who would exploit a unifying concern for example \”safe schools\” to advance their very own favorite strategies, even when those strategies prove disappointing or divisive? We encourage thoughtful SEL advocates in reality the overriding goal would be to help students feel safe and valued, to insist that techniques for doing this take place to similar standards of evidence, and to reassure skeptics that they're not putting a thumb around the scale for strategies they occur to find ideologically congenial or politically useful.
All that said, schools must be places of learning. From parents' perspective, the long-term prospects of their daughters and sons hinge in large part on how they fare academically. While the conviction that SEL and academics are inseparable may incline SEL advocates to wave off concerns about any latent tensions, they'd prosper to help keep loudly insisting that the emphasis on social and emotional considerations should be tightly associated with a focus on children's academic learning, and they must do their finest to assist parents insist upon that linkage in their children's schools. Policymakers might help by looking into making those connections vivid on school report cards and accountability systems. And outside groups that rate and compare schools-organizations for example GreatSchools-can assist (as they typically already do) if you are paying equal attention on their own information pages to \”academics\” and \”environments.\”
School climate surveys are a start, but let's not kid ourselves. They share the vulnerabilities of all subjective \”how do you think things are going\” polls and questionnaires, including selective answers by adults who would like their school to look great (or bad!) and plain old game-playing by students. SEL needs more reliable instruments. Precisely how practical it will likely be to build up them remains an open question, which should be addressed with a transparency and modesty all too often absent recently in high-profile efforts to advertise some other type of novel measures for example student assessment and teacher evaluation.
It's also vital to resist overselling the instruments that we do have. Some of what we should most value in SEL may ultimately prove hard to measure systematically or credibly. Indeed, it is easy to imagine scenarios by which shoddy instruments are clumsily applied, disrupting healthy routines and relationships. Transparency and a willingness to continuously solicit feedback from skeptical students, parents, and teachers-not just supportive ones-will prove invaluable in addressing these tensions. A relentless resolve for evidence will help guard against goofiness whilst helping reassure parents and educators. Once the evidence is shaky or uncertain, SEL advocates have to forthrightly acknowledge the fact-not duck it or downplay it. Sometimes the very best data we've when forming a judgment about something-as with reviews of movies, books, and restaurants-is the judgment of others by means of expert or crowd-sourced opinion (think Zagat and TripAdvisor). The job of advocates is to emphasize transparency and integrity, including distinguishing between \”solid evidence\” and \”thoughtful opinion.\”
This dynamic also means that evidence-based recommendations can wind up being helplessly naive concerning the challenges of how some program or intervention that works well inside a controlled setting will have out in less hospitable environs. SEL doesn't yet cash by way of large data sets, and of course it needs to acquire them. However it neglects at its peril the unsexy study of implementation, the careful evaluation of efficacy, and the development of unpopular but vital experiments that yield solid details about which interventions actually make what differences under what conditions. Those commissioning and engaging in SEL research will have to seek feedback and evidence that can help anticipate what can go wrong in the real world.
Social and emotional learning may become a sturdy pillar of yankee K -12 education. Or it might prove faddish, contentious, and evanescent. Which of those futures lies ahead depends in significant part on the choices produced by supportive educators, advocates, policymakers, funders, and scholars in these early days from the SEL movement. We hope they choose wisely.