The Critical Need for Social & Emotional Learning Programs

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The Critical Need for Social & Emotional Learning Programs

MaryAnn Jobe
Director, Leadership Development
AASA, The School Superintendents Association

In March 2018, The Wallace Foundation released a report on the effects of social and emotional learning programs in 25 elementary schools across the country. The Wallace-funded research brief, Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation, was completed by Stephanie Jones, Rebecca Bailey, Katharine Brush and Jennifer Kahn at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and published by Harvard.

Today, more than ever, we need to be attentive to students’ needs in the public-school environment because they are bringing more and more issues into the classroom. We worry now about nutrition and if students eat well. We try to help with dysfunctional families, and violence at home and in the neighborhood. We also try to educate these young minds so they can be college and career ready in the future. What are we finding out about social and emotional learning programs in elementary schools?

This is what the researchers have to say:


Research indicates that the most effective SEL programs incorporate four elements represented by the acronym SAFE: (1) sequenced activities that lead in a coordinated and connected way to skill development; (2) active forms of learning that enable children to practice and master new skills; (3) focused time spent developing one or more social and emotional skills; and (4) explicit defining and targeting of specific skills. But SEL is about more than just targeting and building skills. Our own research builds upon the SAFE elements to add that SEL efforts are most successful when they also:

1. Occur within supportive contexts. School and classroom contexts that are supportive of children’s social and emotional development include (a) adult and child practices and activities that build skills and establish prosocial norms, and (b) a climate that actively promotes healthy relationships, instructional support and positive classroom management. For this reason, efforts to build social and emotional skills and to improve school culture and climate are mutually reinforcing and may enhance benefits when the two are pursued in a simultaneous and coordinated fashion.

2. Build adult competencies. This includes promoting teachers’ own social and emotional competence and supporting the ongoing integration of SEL-informed pedagogical skills into everyday practice.

3. Partner with family and community. This includes taking into consideration the environments and contexts in which children learn, live and grow by building family-school-community partnerships that can support children at home and in other out-of-school settings, fostering culturally competent and responsive practices, and considering how specific educational policies may influence children.

4. Target key behaviors and skills. This includes pursuing, in a developmentally appropriate way, skills across multiple domains of development, including: (a) emotional processes; (b) social/interpersonal skills; and (c) cognitive regulation or executive function skills.

5. Set reasonable goals. This includes articulating a series of short- and long-term outcomes that are reasonable goals or expectations for the specific SEL effort. These include (a) short-term indicators of children’s growth and progress in areas proximal to the specific SEL activities and (b) longer-term indicators of more distal, future impacts.

(excerpt from Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation.: )

As a leader in your school district, what are you doing to provide a school culture that embraces the uniqueness of every child? Have you developed an SEL program? If so, have you looked at the data? Is it making a difference?

(This blog is made possible through the generous support of The Wallace Foundation)

MaryAnn P. Jobe, Ed.D. is the director of education and leadership development at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.