Social Emotional Learning: What is it?

A Happy Coincidence?

Remember when Adam Sandler movies were actually funny? It’s been a while since The Sandman has had a movie worth quoting, but one of his classics was the 1995 hit “Billy Madison.”

As many no doubt know, this is the story of spoiled rich kid whose father paid his teachers to give him good grades in school. As a result, Billy becomes a barnacle on the log of life. It’s not until his father decides to step down from his role as the head of a hotel chain and not pass the company on to his son that Billy decides to go back to school. He re-does first through twelfth grade to great comedic effect and ends up actually learning something – both academically, and about himself and others in the process.

Why bring up a nostalgic 1990s film in this space? Well there’s an interesting parallel at work here. In that same year, 1995, Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence. In this book, Goleman argues that emotional intelligence is just as important as one’s IQ. The traits of emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, social awareness, interpersonal skills, empathy, and others can be taught, according to Goleman. Emotional Intelligence was an early influence on the development and spread of social emotional learning (SEL).

What Is Social Emotional Learning?

As with many things, what SEL is depends on who you ask and how it’s deployed. That said, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) outlines five core competencies when it comes to SEL.

  • Self-Awareness: This is basically the ability for someone to understand their emotional state and the impact and influence that state has on their actions.
  • Self-Management: Here we’re talking about contextualization. In many ways self-management is about being able to regulate one’s emotions in different situations. For instance, this could mean managing stress with an approaching deadline, or having the discipline to accomplish a long-term task.
  • Social Awareness: The opposite of being self-centered is being socially aware. This includes developing respect and appreciation for others, having empathy, and the perspective to apply these concepts in the proper context.
  • Relationship Skills: It’s not always easy to get along with others. But this competency focuses on things like dealing with peer pressure, interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, and reciprocity.
  • Responsible Decision-Making: This comes down to making good, ethical decisions, and being able to take responsibility for one’s actions regardless of the outcome.

So thinking about these competencies and then reflecting on what Billy Madison was like at the beginning of that film, spending his days drinking next to a swimming pool and acting foolish in front of his father’s business associates, it’s pretty clear that Mr. Madison was seriously lacking in many of these areas of personal development.

What Are the Benefits of Social Emotional Learning?

Anyone who has ever been too tired, too angry, or too scared to effectively accomplish a task has some inkling of the benefit of being emotionally aware. In an academic or work setting, when one’s emotions are out of sorts it’s difficult to focus and be productive.

Everyone has a bad day now and then. Issues arise when what one considers a bad day becomes a chronic reality. The benefit of a social emotional learning approach is that it combats those situations where social emotional conditions decline to the point that they negatively affect learning opportunities and outcomes.

One’s emotional state affects more than one’s academic pursuits. Learning is often a social activity, whether that takes the form of a formal academic context, a sports team, a workshop, or a community group. The skills developed in a SEL environment carry over to all of these social contexts. This means that regardless of the source of a student’s distress, SEL provides the foundation for dealing with that source in a productive manner.

Research suggests that a very real relationship exists between SEL and academic learning. It’s no shock that students learn best when they feel safe. If students don’t feel safe they spend more time focusing on the source of their stress then they do on the subject at hand. Therefore, one of the most important goals of SEL is to create a consistently safe learning environment.

How Can Schools Implement Social Emotional Learning?

Despite the fact that more and more schools are exploring SEL options, there is not, unfortunately, a panacea program that schools looking to adopt SEL practices can take advantage of. However, research on SEL implementation offers some hope in this area. In some respects, it matters less what kind of SEL program a school implements and more on how it’s implemented.

In order to be effective, SEL needs to be integrated on a continual and consistent basis. That means that limiting SEL to a one-off elective program, or a mandatory program for certain at-risk students is tantamount to treating the symptoms and not the source.

With that said, there are at least four different interconnected elements common to successful SEL initiatives. These include:

  1. A series of structured, connected activities that tie directly to skills.
  2. A commitment to active learning.
  3. An emphasis on developing one or more social skills.
  4. Targeting specific skills.

Of course, anything can look good on paper. It’s the execution for SEL initiatives that makes a huge difference. This basically means getting staff buy-in to the practice. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the study above shows that students of teachers who received SEL training and were able to implement those practices into their teaching had better outcomes than students of teachers whose implementation was less thorough.

It’s not enough to simply implement SEL within the four walls of a given classroom, however. SEL practices need to extend into every aspect of the school – from the hallways to the cafeteria, from after-school activities to school sports, and more. This gets back to the concept of feeling safe and stress-free. Having an effective school management system in place helps teachers and administrators to monitor student behavior and keep them accountable. As a result, students themselves gain a stake in creating their school’s learning environment. This type of continuity and consistency pays dividends with SEL.

Some SEL approaches may include things like: using sports and team activities to learn about cooperation and teamwork, partnering older students with younger students to establish peer mentor relationships, having class meetings where students can practice decision-making and establish classroom rules, and organizing activities that require empathy.

We can see in some of these examples that students – not just teachers or administrators – are given the power to shape their own environments. Like Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” These processes help students learn how to develop and manage that responsibility.

What Place Does SEL Have in Schools?

When you sit back and think about it, academic and social emotional learning are not antithetical. Instead, this is really a case of one hand washing the other. So when it comes to creating a positive, safe culture in a school, high academic and social emotional achievement walk in lockstep.

Remember a few paragraphs back when we said that learning is a social process? Well, the same is true of SEL. Interpersonal relationships are one of the keystones of SEL. When students are younger, it’s up to teachers to convey to them what constitutes acceptable behavior.

As students mature they are able to apply those ideas in more complex ways in dealing with peers and authority figures alike. Once this occurs, the number of – and directional influence of – interpersonal relationships changes. What starts as a teacher-to-student dynamic comes to resemble a hydra where multiple heads exist simultaneously. So what other dynamics come into play here? There’s self-reflection, peer-to-peer, student-to-teacher, and a host of other individual and group relationships. When you think about how many of these occur for any given person on any given day, then the importance of the school environment comes into high relief.

The school matters in both a physical and a cultural sense – physical, because it functions as an alembic where all of the different stakeholders are placed in close proximity and forced to ‘make it work’ (as Tim Gunn would say). At the same time, these factors contribute to a school’s culture and climate. If SEL can ensure that both culture and climate are conducive to academic achievement, then its place in the educational curriculum becomes pretty obvious.

By the end of Billy Madison, the eponymous character evolves into a better, albeit quirky, person, both academically and in an emotional-social context – and all this happened with an epiphany or two on Mr. Madison’s part. Just imagine what a focused SEL effort could do for Billy Madisons all over the country …



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