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5 ways to think about social and emotional learning

Justina Schlund
April 28, 2021

Once a niche term, social and emotional learning has become a frequent topic in education and in education journalism. 

Coverage of SEL has tripled over the last three years, according to the organization I work for, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

And the surge of attention for SEL is likely to continue as schools grapple with the many priorities emerging from the pandemic.

But as interest and media coverage has accelerated, there’s also growing confusion.

Some news stories have equated SEL with a quick breathing exercise.

Others have described it as a complex school redesign model.

Most concerning are the stories misrepresenting SEL as a way to “fix” or control behaviors of students.

As attention to SEL continues to grow this spring and beyond, educators need to know what “good” SEL implementation looks like, and journalists need to avoid misrepresentations of SEL and young people. 

Here is a background about SEL plus five ways to think about it, with specific examples of and clear criteria for measuring strong coverage on the topic.

Background on SEL 

When CASEL first coined the term “SEL” more than 25 years ago, we envisioned educators, families, and communities working together to support all students in developing competencies to achieve their goals and contribute to a more caring, just world.

Simply put, SEL is a lifelong process of learning how to better understand ourselves, connect with others, and work together to achieve goals and support our communities.

In schools, SEL emphasizes relationship-building and includes teaching these skills explicitly and applying them to academics and students’ lives, for example by discussing different perspectives in social studies or providing opportunities to collaborate on issues that students care about.

Decades of research have demonstrated the importance of SEL on a wide range of student outcomes, including academics, behaviors, mental health, and graduation rates.

School districts including in Anchorage, Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, El Paso, Tex., Nashville, Oakland, Sacramento, and Washoe County, Nev. have implemented SEL for many years, demonstrating impressive outcomes in academics, behaviors, and school climate. Other districts including in Guilford County, N.C., Minneapolis, Palm Beach County, Fla., and Tulsa have also begun SEL implementation in recent years, with promising early results. 

Media trends in SEL

As SEL has spread, so has media coverage.

You’ll find coverage across national and local media, spanning left-leaning and right-leaning outlets, and in the context of a wide range of issues: academic performance, bullying, school discipline, standardized testing debates, career readiness, and teacher preparation, and others. 

Outlets like Education Week have produced robust coverage, offering insight into what SEL looks like in school districts and providing helpful summaries of leading recommendations.

Edutopia, ASCD, and the New York Times have also covered the topic often and well. This ASCD issue offers helpful perspectives for educator audiences. The New York Times has a collection of SEL-related articles that apply SEL to a wide range of education and non-education topics

During the pandemic, growing media coverage has helped expand the view of SEL beyond a single lesson on empathy.

Reporters have covered stories about SEL as a way to address learning loss, create virtual friendships, reimagine schools, support antiracism, and promote mental health.

Unfortunately, too many recent stories about SEL undersell or oversell the science behind SEL -- framing it as fluff time spent away from academics or, perhaps worse, describing it as a potential panacea for “some of K-12’s biggest woes.”

High-quality SEL programs contribute to important academic and behavioral outcomes. But claims that SEL “tackles K-12’s biggest woes” or gives kids “coping skills for issues like homelessness, violence and drugs” sidestep deep inequities in our education systems that require much more than SEL alone. 

Here are five strategies for discerning well-informed media coverage.

Strategy #1: Look for the science and data 

SEL is based on brain science that studies how humans develop from childhood to adulthood. Research has shown that we think and learn best when we have supportive relationships, feel a sense of security and belonging, and have opportunities to process stress and emotions in healthy ways.

In other words, SEL isn’t an alternative to academics -- it’s a catalyst for any kind of learning you want to do. In fact, hundreds of studies document that high-quality SEL programs lead to short-term and long-term academic and behavioral benefits for PreK-12th grade students.

For these reasons, journalists should ground their coverage with the research and data. For example, here’s a 2020 story from The 74 that takes a close look at an afterschool program focused on SEL. The article grounds descriptions of the fun activities and excitement from students and parents in the research behind the program, and what outcomes were – and were not – demonstrated.

Not all SEL stories may feature programs with a randomized control trial behind it, but they may include insights from schools and districts on how they’re using data to assess the impact of SEL efforts. For example, this 2016 article in The Atlantic points to local college completion rates and climate surveys that are helping schools reflect on the growth they’ve seen and areas of improvement for SEL implementation.

Strategy #2: Highlight students’ existing strengths

Strike up a conversation with just about any young person and you will easily glimpse 

some of their unique strengths, interests, and aspirations. Even in challenging circumstances -- such as a global pandemic -- young people of all races, backgrounds, and abilities demonstrate countless social and emotional competencies.

Journalists shouldn’t obscure real challenges that students and schools are facing, but they can create a more comprehensive narrative by bringing in student voices to speak to their own goals and needs and asking educators broader questions about how they’re building on students’ strengths.

Stories that include fuller quotes from students, such as this 2017 article from The Atlantic, create a richer portrait of young people’s development through SEL.

Rather than rely on adults’ perceptions about students’ skill levels, the reporter gives students the opportunity to speak for themselves about their own challenges and areas of growth, as well as their strengths and lifelong goals.

Strategy #3: Avoid focusing on perceived student deficits 

In interviews with reporters, I am almost always asked about adversity and perceived social and emotional problems and very rarely asked about students’ social and emotional strengths. When I do bring up the many strengths that young people have demonstrated, that portion of my quote rarely makes it into the articles. It’s a journalism-wide pattern that’s especially notable when coverage conflates SEL with mental health issues and behavior problems.

SEL is meant to enhance students’ existing strengths and help them reach their goals, not to repair brokenness or control their behaviors. Stories with broad claims such as the Dayton Daily News story that opens with a line about how “children are coming to school without the social and emotional skills necessary” can create an oversimplified, potentially damaging narrative.

The opening sentence oversteps what the quoted expert states about trends he’s noticing in the behavioral health center, and the article conflates trauma and mental health issues with SEL. Exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACES) is not a measure of social and emotional skills, nor are students' social and emotional skill levels an indicator of mental health issues. And while researchers have noted rising rates of youth mental health issues, no large-scale study has found a decline in children’s social and emotional skills.

As more journalists are being called on to cover SEL, a deficit narrative can show up particularly in stories about Black or brown students or those from low-income homes, alongside misrepresentations of SEL as a tool for compliance.

Take this example from a 2016 Chicago Tribune article that suggests teaching students social and emotional skills may lead to better “behavior control.”

The article discusses how more students are coming from “disadvantaged homes” and “financially stressed parents” to set up a quote from a social worker: “Kids didn’t have the skills to do what we wanted them to do.”

This article focuses heavily on a narrative that SEL is needed so that students have better behaviors, but doesn’t take a look at the district’s efforts to address how adults may contribute to racially disproportionate discipline rates. The implication that students from low-income homes lack control overshadows some of the more positive outcomes from the school’s efforts to build supportive relationships and decrease punitive approaches to discipline.

Strategy #4 Widen the lens to include SEL for adults

Adults play a huge role in creating the types of learning opportunities and environments that students experience. That’s why a big part of SEL is about supporting adults in developing their professional skills as well as their own social and emotional skills, including cultural competence.

With growing attention to the role of adults in SEL, more news stories over the last few years have begun digging into this important discussion.

This 2019 roundup of articles from the New York Times helps to present a more comprehensive look at SEL across childhood to adulthood, such as how teachers can build empathy or enhance their own social and emotional well-being.

This 2018 Edutopia article breaks from a conventional SEL narrative to explore how police officers in Oakland are developing their own social and emotional skills to “build relationships with staff and students first” and “understand the context of people’s situations and actions.”

This story helps create a fuller narrative about how adults’ SEL and actions can support students in processing and coping with challenging situations.

Strategy #5 Present SEL in its full context

At its core, SEL is about how educators, families and communities work together to support all students in their learning and development. But a misleading refrain in some stories about SEL is that it’s now become the work of teachers, shifting away from parents or mental health professionals.

Teachers have always played an essential role in implementing SEL -- because SEL is essential to academic learning -- but it’s a shared responsibility with school leaders, social workers, counselors, families, community partners, and all the other adults who shape the educational experiences of young people.

This 2019 article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution raises some important questions about how best to support educators, who are essential to promoting SEL. But its suggestion that SEL is something “landing on the teacher’s desk” because “community mental health programs are slashed” misrepresents what SEL is supposed to be.

And while improved mental health is one outcome of SEL, it was never intended to replace or supplement necessary community programs. It was meant to support all young people (and adults) in all the places where they live and learn so that they can navigate daily tasks, achieve their long-term goals, and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

SEL has always been a strength-based approach to creating rich learning opportunities and more equitable environments for all children.

But even well-intentioned articles can send problematic messages about kids and SEL or make sweeping statements that aren’t based in data. 

And if reporters don’t question misrepresentations of SEL as a way to “fix” or control behaviors of students, they can risk contributing to a false, damaging narrative, particularly about Black and brown students and others who are disproportionately harmed by educational policies and practices.

Stories about SEL offer so many opportunities to explore students’ learning, the role of educators, and connections between schools, communities and families.

Tell those stories with care and clarity.

Justina Schlund is the senior director of content and field learning at CASEL. She’s a former education reporter, teacher and district SEL director. Reach her on Twitter at @JustinaSchlund.

Additional resources:

This piece was produced in partnership with The Grade, a nonprofit media watchdog project founded by longtime education writer Alexander Russo to help improve education journalism. The Grade features weekly media commentary and a free newsletter, Best Education Journalism of the Week. Sign up here or follow along on Twitter @thegrade_.