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How to talk about SEL with families

Misconceptions about social and emotional learning often can disappear once educators talk about SEL with families to explain its skills.

6 min read


angry face block/emoji talk about SEL with parents

Andre Hunter/Unsplash

It’s a regrettable byproduct of our highly polarized world that social and emotional learning, which has been part of the K-12 curriculum for decades, has suddenly become controversial. As some political groups and parents push back against social and emotional learning in schools, K-12 leaders have had to talk about SEL with families to defend its purpose and value in the classroom.

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on students’ well-being, making it harder for them to focus on learning. By promoting skills that help students build positive relationships, demonstrate empathy and manage emotions, educators can help mitigate COVID’s impact — and engage learners in core academic content.

While the professionals who work with children every day understand the importance of developing social and emotional skills (and might be inclined to ignore the noise), this issue isn’t going away any time soon. 

K–12 leaders should know how to have productive conversations about this topic with parents and school board members so they can correct any misunderstanding of SEL that exists in their community and continue to provide related instruction.

Effective conversations should create a shared understanding of what social and emotional learning skills are and why acquiring them is important to student success. These four strategies that can help.

Focus on skills, not terminology

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which calls SEL instruction “an integral part of education and human development,” defines it as the process of helping students develop healthy identities, manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy, establish strong relationship skills and make responsible decisions.

CASEL’s framework covers five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Within these broader competencies are skills that are essential for success in school, work and life, such as listening, working well with others, setting goals, being resilient and overcoming adversity.

A 2021 study on parents’ perceptions of SEL by the Fordham Institute found that while families across the political spectrum want their children to learn social and emotional skills, the term “SEL” itself is divisive. The report suggests there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually involves; however, if K-12 leaders describe the specific skills their schools are teaching using plain and simple language, most parents are likely to support the inclusion of SEL in regular instruction.

Emphasize broad skills support among parents, employers

Students from all families benefit from learning relationship skills, self-management, and other social and emotional abilities. What’s more, the Fordham Institute report reveals widespread support for teaching these skills in school. 

For instance, 93% of parents agreed that schools should teach students how to set goals and work toward achieving them. Ninety-one percent agreed that students should learn how to believe in themselves and their abilities, and 86% said students should learn how to navigate social situations.

Regardless of one’s political identity, “there is near unanimity that … students’ social and emotional needs must be met in order for them to reach their academic potential,” the report says.

Business leaders also agree that skills such as empathy and global awareness are essential for future workers in a global economy. As K-12 leaders talk about SEL with families, they should call attention to the strong support for the skills taught through social and emotional instruction among these key stakeholder groups.

Highlight connection between SEL skills, student success

Research identifies clear academic benefits to SEL: An analysis of more than 200 studies involving 270,000 students found that instruction increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, on average. Another study found a 9% drop in behavioral problems when students learn social and emotional competencies

Social and emotional skills are critical for success, not just academically but also in the workplace. More than 9 in 10 company executives (92%) believe that skills like communication and empathy are just as important for success as technical job skills. One study of the economic benefits of SEL instruction found an $11 return for every $1 invested in SEL programs. 

Demonstrate efficacy of your SEL programs

Some of the public mistrust of SEL instruction is being driven by the mixed quality of SEL-related services being offered in schools today. Seizing an opportunity to cash in on an emerging trend, some service providers have introduced programs with varying degrees of effectiveness. Not all of these solutions are rooted in science; however, in attacking suspect SEL programs, critics are tarring high-quality programs with the same brush.

The adoption of evidence-based tools and programs are the key to providing consistent, high-quality SEL opportunities for all students. Wherever applicable, K-12 leaders should talk about SEL with families and note the research behind the specific programs they’re using and explain how these programs were developed with sound science in mind.

For instance, the Edsby social learning platform for K-12 allows students to share how they’re feeling with their teachers and gives educators research-based strategies to help meet students’ SEL needs. The system was designed with input from a team of SEL experts and is affiliated with MindUP, an evidence-based nonprofit designed to improve children’s emotional well-being.

Educators must teach students strategies for managing stress, give them intentional opportunities to check in with a caring adult and help them learn to get along with others, experts say. These traits are vital for students’ success in school and life.

K-12 professionals know only too well the importance of helping students develop social and emotional skills, especially at this critical time. Parents need to understand this as well. Having productive conversations as you talk about SEL with families can clear up misunderstandings about this topic and pave the way for student success.

Carl Hooker, Matt Joseph, Suzy Brooks and Leo Brehm are editorial board members of K12Leaders, which magnifies leadership potential through community, content and learning opportunities. The editorial board members are authors, educators, technology leaders and administrators from a variety of K-12 backgrounds.


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