3 Important Lessons on Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Every year, thousands of studies, research papers, conference talks, and dissertations come out on education. Of those thousands, only a few make their way into the hands – and into the actual practice – of teachers, school administrators, and policy makers. Ahmad_B_discussion

At the end of 2014, the American Educational Research Association published a list of its 10 most-read education articles. Using that list, NPR came out with a summary of the 5 key lessons education research taught us in 2014. Among those lessons are strategies for teaching math to struggling elementary-grade students, as well as research on the effectiveness in raising test scores of aligning curricula with a set of standards.

NPR’s fifth lesson – “What SEL-based curricula may and may not be able to do” – caught our attention at TYO. Social emotional learning (SEL) is an education approach focused on growing students’ social and emotional awareness as a way of teaching basic life skills. Key elements include acknowledging and accepting one’s emotions, learning how to manage those emotions, understanding oneself in the context of social relationships (family, friends, school), developing interpersonal skills, and promoting a positive sense of self in order to make healthy and responsible decisions.

TYO’s Core Child program curriculum echoes many of the same motivations. Our Core curriculum is designed to promote the emotional, cognitive, and physical development of our 4-8 year old students. The curriculum promotes social and emotional awareness as a way of empowering children to become active and responsible members of their families and communities.

NPR references a study published last spring in the American Educational Research Journal in which researchers tested whether SEL could improve student performance in math and reading. Data was collected from 2,904 children across 276 classrooms and 24 U.S. schools. The results? Classes where teachers taught an SEL curriculum exactly the way researchers had designed it performed significantly higher on math and reading tests than the control group. However, on average, the students in SEL-based classes (including classrooms where the curriculum was not implemented perfectly or consistently) performed the same as the control group. In summary, the research indicates that SEL can have high academic returns, but only when teachers are well-trained in implementation of an SEL curriculum.

TYO’s Core teachers, along with our Psychosocial Program Manager Suhad Jabi, discussed this lesson about SEL and the implications for our own classroom practices. Reflecting on our own experience implementing TYO’s non-formal curriculum, we came up with a few of our own lessons on SEL.

From TYO’s Core team, here are 3 things you need to know about SEL –

1. SEL requires extensive training of teachers. SEL, and similar holistic education approaches, are a relatively young movement. Therefore, most current teachers have not experienced SEL as students and hence struggle not to revert to more traditional, strictly academic techniques in the classroom. Overcoming that bias requires extensive training with frequent follow-up. In TYO’s Core program, our teachers and classroom volunteers undergo an intensive training in our psychosocial non-formal approach involving role-play of specific classroom scenarios. Our Core team also participates in frequent follow-up trainings and discussions to better cement their understanding of our psychosocial approach.

2. The biggest returns of SEL are long-term. The study above tests only the short-term effects of SEL on students’ performance. However, in our experience, the greatest gains in promoting the social and emotional development of young children are long-term. Parents of students in our Core 4-5 year old program have reported, years later, that their children who are now enrolled in standard elementary school classes are more engaged and positive in the classroom than their classmates, and additionally gain more satisfaction from their academic achievements.

3. The goal of SEL is not only to increase academic performance, but also to encourage children to be active and responsible citizens of their communities. Critics of SEL worry that the time and focus spent on developing social and emotional skills may be at the expense of students’ performance in academic subjects. Not only does the research above suggest otherwise, but the critique itself misses the point of SEL. Through SEL, students not only become better learners, but they also become better communicators, listeners, friends, community members – the list goes on. In TYO's Core program, through developing awareness of their own emotions, children build their empathy towards others; through learning about respectful communication and relationships, children learn how to deal with difficult situations in constructive and ethical ways – not only in school, but also at home and in their communities.

- Niralee, TYO Core Child Program Manager