By Sam Piha
What are Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Building Skills?
Recently, there has been a flurry of research studies and articles on essential non-academic skills, attitudes, and beliefs that young people need in order to be successful in school, work, and life. These studies and articles have promoted a number of new terms - non-cognitive skills, social emotional learning, growth mindsets, character, and grit - to name a few. The Wallace Foundation recently published a study on which terms resonate best with K-12 educators, afterschool leaders, and parents. They concluded that “social emotional learning” was the term that was favored by all three groups.
Due to the explosion of new terms related to SEL and character building, The Expanded Learning 360°/365 Project convened a research group to review all of this and synthesize it into something more digestible. They recently published two papers, Student Success Comes Full Circle and Finding Common Ground, to share their three foundational areas of SEL and character building:
Alignment With the California Quality Standards for Expanded Learning Programs
Expanded learning programs (also referred to as afterschool and summer youth programs) are perfectly positioned to promote these three foundational areas. The California Quality Standards (CQS) draw on the best of what we know about the characteristics of quality expanded learning programs and quality learning environments. If programs focus on the SEL and character building, they are likely to successfully promote CQS. For instance, promoting I AM (intrapersonal skills) and I BELONG (interpersonal connections) will greatly support the quality standards of Safe and Supportive Environment, Active and Engaged Learning, and Skill Building. Likewise, the I CAN (beliefs and mindset) foundational area is intertwined with Skill Building and Youth Voice and Leadership.
Continuous Quality Improvement
The California Department of Education funds thousands of expanded learning programs. They do not require programs to show effectiveness with a standardized tool, however, they do ask programs to engage in a continuous quality improvement process.
In conducting a program improvement process, it is important that leaders be clear and intentional (explicit) about which standards or SEL and character building skills they are seeking to promote. It is only then that program leaders can ask, “How is our program promoting the chosen standard or SEL and character building skills and how could we adjust our program practices to improve our results?”
It is essential that program leaders use a tool to capture data on their program. They are then well positioned to design and implement program practices that are well aligned (focused) with the standards or SEL and character building skills they are working to intentionally effect. The Expanded Learning 360°/365 Project has designed a self-reflection tool that is focused on SEL and character building and program practice. The 360°/365 Project has also designed several program training modules on promoting the I AM, I BELONG, and I CAN skills, which are being offered by the California School-Age Consortium.
By Guest Blogger, Carinne Deeds, Policy Associate at AYPF
Trying to figure out social and emotional learning (SEL)? Join the club. Educators, administrators, and researchers alike have been increasingly focused on the development of non-academic skills, and with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), so has the federal government. Social and emotional skills have been linked to reduced criminal activity, greater career achievement, and improved student attitudes, behaviors, and academic achievement.
From the development of standards to methods of measurement to state accountability systems, one thing is for certain – policy conversations around SEL are picking up steam. As these conversations evolve, however, we feel it’s important to take a step back, examine the research and practice available, and identify our gaps in knowledge in order to effectively move forward in our policy conversations. Outlined below are some of the key questions AYPF is asking as we consider SEL’s place in policy considerations.
1. What skills are we talking about and what exactly are we calling them?
We need clarity around language. Call us the language police, but we think that proper terminology is about much more than semantics. SEL, character development, soft/noncognitive skills (my least favorite), 21stcentury skills, employability skills, agency – to what extent are we conflating terms, and to what extent are we all talking about the same thing? AYPF has written in the past that there is a core set of skills and competencies we want all young people to develop, including academic skills, technical skills, and personal resources, which encompass many of the social, emotional, personal, and professional competencies included in the frameworks above. Communication, collaboration, and critical thinking are consistently ranked among the most sought after skills by employers, are critical to success in postsecondary education, and are important to parents and teachers alike. So if we in the education community want to prioritize the development of these skills and better align the various systems that foster that development, we need to do a better job of defining exactly what those skills are and being explicit and intentional with what we call them.
2. What SEL practices are most effective for who and in what setting?
We need clarity around developmental appropriateness. We believe that SEL is crucial to both kindergarten readiness and college and career readiness, but we know that those skills, and the ways in which we develop them, will look a lot different at different ages. Are the things we want kindergarteners to know and do (self-management, self-regulation, etc.) the same things we want high school graduates to know and do – just less advanced? If we are going to prioritize any skill and certainly if we are going to measure that skill, we need to know what that looks like in a first grader and a 9thgrader. For example, interpersonal skills in kindergarten might mean I know that I’m not supposed to kick my friend, or that it is nice to share, but the expectations for my interpersonal competencies will certainly be different as I’m about to enter college. So, do these skills evolve over time, or are we looking at completely different skills as young people advance from elementary to middle to high school and beyond?
3. Which skills are “taught” and which are “caught”?*
We need clarity around the “teachability” of social and emotional skills. Skills like time management, responsibility, teamwork and problem solving are relatively noncontroversial in terms of our capacity to teach them over time. The teachability of other social and emotional skills, however, are up for debate. Can you teach passion? Can you grow perseverance? Creativity? Conscientiousness? Some argue that you can, while others maintain that many of these skills are highly heritable. To what extent can we attribute SEL to in-school learning in the absence of measurement of other potentially influential factors like genetics, family life, community involvement, or participation in extracurricular activities? Before we draw conclusions about whether or not we should hold schools and teachers accountable for children’s development of these skills, shouldn’t we first gain a better understanding of the degree to which these skills can be fostered in the classroom?
4. Once we agree on high-priority, teachable skills, what exactly should we do?
We need clarity around effective implementation – from delivery to teacher preparation to assessment. There is a growing research base around the implementation of SEL in specific settings (i.e. early childhood, afterschool, or early elementary grades). However, we lack a clear consensus around the best methods for nurturing developmentally-appropriate SEL across time and, importantly, the types of preparation and support educators or youth program staff need in order to do this well. The good news is we don’t know nothing. Many states have or are currently working to develop a set of research-supported standards related to social and emotional learning. However, we lack agreement on the best ways to implement these standards, including the most reliable and unbiased methods of assessing these skills. Student surveys and observation are common means of assessment, but are still controversial. We need a better understanding of how to teach these skills and how to effectively measure them in a way that is unbiased and comparable across settings.
5. Should we hold schools accountable for SEL, and if so, how?
We need clarity around potential accountability measures for SEL. Given that ESSA has explicitly called for the inclusion of a nonacademic indicator in state accountability systems, the pressure is on to determine if and how SEL measures are appropriate to include. While there is strong agreement that SEL is critical to student success, considerable doubt exists about the connection between accountability and authentic social and emotional growth. To quote a recent NASBE publication: “On one hand, this new flexibility was a welcome federal recognition of the contribution nonacademic factors make to student academic success. On the other, the validity of using assessments of these factors to inform high-stakes teacher- or school-level accountability decisions remains an open question in need of substantial further research.” So what are the potential indicators that capture social and emotional growth? Are these indicators clearly linked to measurable skills? And is accountability the best or only way to ensure that SEL is a priority in the classroom?
*We would like to attribute the “taught” vs. “caught” language to many conversations with Dr. Dale Blyth, Board Member of National Afterschool Association and one of our favorite SEL gurus.
Carinne Deeds is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.
The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.