A recent post from Dean Shareski, Are We Ready to Learn Again explores the false dichotomy between deeper learning and wellness. Dean accurately points out that many schools separate SEL from academic learning. This reminds me that there still exists lingering misconceptions of SEL, many of which originate from school wide SEL programs. Oftentimes these top down initiatives are introduced as a post-Covid reaction rather than by well thought out plan.
I see two main sources for educators mistakenly segregating SEL and content learning. First, SEL is usually taught separate from content. In elementary schools, it is a 15 minute slot in the already packed daily schedule. In secondary, it is relegated to an advisory period a few times a week.
The second reason that educators separate SEL from deeper learning is they have a partial understanding of what Social Emotional Learning truly is. Let’s explore each of these reasons and why this is more than just an exercise in semantics.
As a response to the student isolation of the pandemic and the visible trauma of Black Lives Matter Movement after the murder of George Floyd, practically every school added some sort of SEL instruction. (Note: to be clear, the trauma has always been there for students of color, but the events of 2020 brought it to the national forefront). The pendulum of educational priorities rapidly swung from Common Core and standardized testing to connecting and meeting each student’s wellness needs, seemingly from content to SEL.
The problem in many schools is that teachers were not prepared for nor trained in how to effectively model and teach SEL skills in their classroom. It was easier to “check the SEL box” by purchasing curriculum and making it a mandatory part of a student’s schedule. As might be expected, some teachers enthusiastically embraced this shift, while others quietly ignored it seeing SEL as the “flavor of the month” initiative that will fade away if they wait long enough.
SEL can not be limited to advisory time or a fifteen minute slot in the elementary schedule. While administrators may have the best intentions, a canned SEL curriculum compartmentalizes it as a “subject” that is separate from the rest of school. The students also perceive this disconnect between SEL and the rest of their classes. Therefore both teachers and students may view Social Emotional Learning as “fluff” and not pertinent to “real” school in any meaningful way.
A Better Definition of SEL
Another problem with SEL is a limited definition that only sees it as focused on students well-being. Many educators equate SEL with specific practices such as mindfulness, breathing, and yoga. It is seen as an individual coping strategy to deal with stress or strong emotions. Others conflate SEL with trauma informed instruction and focus on connecting and meeting each student’s mental health needs.
While all of this is helpful and important, it should not be defined as Social Emotional Learning. Mindfulness, breathing, and yoga are helpful tools to develop SEL skills, but are not the actual competencies themselves. Trauma informed instruction is a critical piece that our schools need but is also not synonymous with SEL.
SEL should not be limited to students experiencing trauma or who struggle to get along socially with others. That is deficit thinking. SEL skills need to be cultivated by everyone, including adults, over a lifetime. No one masters them all. CASEL defines SEL as:
“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”CASEL
This more complete definition of Social Emotional Learning as a complex set of skills and characteristics demonstrates that coping skills and mental health are elements of SEL, but not the whole picture. SEL skills include communication, empathy, collaboration, and problem solving. SEL is not limited student trauma but encompasses many skills integral to deeper learning.
Why SEL Matters
Students need SEL in school, but not in the way that educators often perceive it. With an accurate understanding of how the SEL skills relate to core content exploration, students should be practicing them while engaging in deeper learning. Let’s go beyond SEL lessons in advisory to practicing skills all day long.
Rather than being separate from content instruction, SEL provides the skills that enable students to research deeply, discuss civilly, empathize, and apply learning to their world. In order to be effective, SEL skills must be taught, practiced, and assessed all of the time.
If you know anything about me, then you know that I wholeheartedly embrace Project Based Learning as the perfect structure to teach SEL skills and content simultaneously. We need to model SEL daily and practice its competencies throughout the class as students collaboratively work on structured inquiry solving complex problems.
Learn with me!
Would you like to explore more deeply how to integrate SEL into daily classroom activities? Check out my book below for tons of practical ways that can be immediately implemented in any classroom.
The ideal way to improve SEL skills for students is to start with the adults. Districts should provide PD where teachers explore their own SEL strengths and weaknesses, modeling strategies that can be used in the core classroom.
Are you interested in professional development for your school on how to integrate SEL? Of course, I highly recommend PBL as the ideal framework to use. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for spring and summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.