Back to School Means Back to SEL for America's Teachers and Principals


Sep 4, 2019

Children looking down at the camera, photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

Photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on CASEL Measuring SEL Blog on September 4, 2019.

Educators across the U.S. are embarking on a new school year, developing lesson plans and figuring out their students' academic needs. They are also likely to be considering ways to support the non-academic aspects of their students' development. Teachers and principals know that to be successful in college and careers, kids need to master a range of social and emotional skills such as teamwork, communication, and the ability to manage their emotions. Schools are increasingly adopting social and emotional learning (SEL) programs and practices to build these skills, and policymakers can benefit from understanding the educator perspective: how they feel about emphasizing SEL, what they are doing to promote SEL, and what resources they need to do that better.

Recent nationally representative survey findings from RAND's American Educator Panels shed light on educators' SEL opinions and practices, and they strongly suggest that educators value SEL and believe in its power to benefit kids. They also suggest that educators need support to do SEL well.

Consistent with the recent explosion in SEL programs and expert guidance, our survey results confirm that SEL is widespread in schools. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. principals in both elementary and secondary schools report that promoting their students' SEL skills is one of their top priorities, and nearly all teachers and principals indicate that it is important for schools to help students develop and apply a wide range of these skills.

Nearly all principals and teachers agreed that supporting students' social and emotional development could improve student achievement, engagement, and behavior, as well as school-wide climate.

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Moreover, most educators believe SEL can support the other goals that schools are expected to pursue. Nearly all principals and teachers agreed that supporting students' social and emotional development could improve student achievement, engagement, and behavior, as well as school-wide climate. This is good news for those who worry that attention to SEL is likely to get crowded out due to pressure to raise test scores and for those who worry that a focus on SEL detracts from academic goals.

Teachers and principals are addressing SEL through a wide variety of formal and informal approaches, and they are also adopting many different measurement approaches to monitor SEL in their schools. The lack of a uniform approach to SEL instruction and assessment can help ensure that schools are meeting the needs of their students by employing strategies that work within their unique contexts, but this diversity of approaches can also make it challenging for SEL program providers and experts to support educators in their efforts. Fortunately, guidance about programs, assessments (PDF), and strategies for monitoring implementation is widely available.

Finally, the survey results point to a few supports that educators could find helpful. Not surprisingly, more time rose to the top of a list of desired supports. Because time is a finite resource, one approach to addressing this concern is to help educators integrate SEL-supporting strategies into the instruction and other activities that they are already undertaking. Teachers also expressed a desire for support in the nuts and bolts of developing student SEL including: engaging students in their own SEL learning, engagement from parents and families in supporting student SEL, and incorporating SEL into classroom curriculum.

Despite the daunting number of responsibilities that principals and teachers face, and the pressure to meet academic achievement targets as part of state accountability systems, our recent report indicates that educators believe SEL is in the purview of schools, that it can promote a broader set of student and school goals, and that additional supports from districts or states would be helpful. These results should be encouraging to educators and policymakers who believe schools should promote all aspects of students' development, not just their academic achievement.

But there is potential for this enthusiasm to diminish if educators don't see the expected payoff in the form of higher rates of student learning or more supportive school climates. Supporters of SEL would be wise to learn from prior reforms that failed to achieve their ambitious goals, and leaders could ensure that educators have the guidance and supports they need to implement SEL effectively and to evaluate the results so that they can make mid-course corrections where needed.

Policymakers could also continue to monitor educators' support for, and implementation of, SEL. A forthcoming report commissioned by CASEL will provide evidence of how principals' perspectives on SEL have changed as SEL resources have become more widespread, and RAND will continue to use the American Educator Panels to ensure that teachers and principals can share their voices and experiences to guide future policy decisions. In the meantime, we can be confident that as students return to school, their teachers and principals will be thinking of ways to help them develop the full range of skills they will need to succeed.

Laura Hamilton is distinguished chair in learning and assessment at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and directs the RAND Center for Social and Emotional Learning Research; Christopher Doss and Elizabeth Steiner are associate policy researchers at RAND.

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