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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Reader's Guide / The Social-Emotional Learning Moment

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Social-emotional learning
What we should teach and assess in U.S. schools is a contentious issue. So, when a majority of parents and K–12 educators agrees that one group of skills is "very important" to teach and assess, those are likely skills people have noticed that young people sorely need. Such a consensus seems clear for the collection of abilities highlighted in this issue—skills connected to understanding emotions, forming relationships, making good choices, and tackling tough work. In a recent Gallup poll, majorities of parents, teachers, and school administrators said it's "very important" to assess certain social and emotional skills in school.
Social-emotional skills—also called "character strengths "interpersonal skills," "noncognitive abilities," and (a misnomer) "soft skills"—have always been stressed by caring educators. Teaching for these capabilities—social-emotional learning—is key to ASCD's Whole Child approach, and groups like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) have spent decades identifying central social-emotional skills and competencies. Empathy, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, "grit," self-regulation—the list of what SEL lessons and approaches teach kids is lengthy and compelling, and not just for kids.
The call to put social-emotional learning on a par with academics is growing louder—partly because of cultural signs showing that talents like resolving conflicts and collaborating with others elude many Americans. Violence and even killings in schools or by young people make regular headlines, and reports of what U.S. businesses say they will need in future employees list self-discipline and collaboration skills as top priorities.
But the calls are also increasing because of the research base on the effectiveness of SEL programs. Studies show that well-designed SEL programs can increase students' academic achievement and improve their life outcomes. Higher odds of getting a high school diploma, a better shot at college, and even a lower likelihood of arrest—all are correlated with exposure to solid SEL instruction. Amanda Nickerson's research finds that approaches to curbing bullying that strengthen SEL competencies are more successful. Strategies to regulate emotions can help teachers, too.

Emotional Development

So how to fulfill that promise? The authors featured in this issue lay out a range of ways to strengthen social-emotional skills and dispositions among students. In our lead article, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Marc A. Brackett discusses an approach for increasing students' emotional intelligence, the awareness that all emotions can be helpful if we tune into them and use them wisely.
Knowing one's own emotions, Brackett and others note, is a building block of empathy—the quality that parenting expert Michele Borba explores in depth. Borba explicates nine competencies of empathy, with real-life examples from schools of how to teach for each. As a bonus, this issue provides a short visual learning resource (a serious comic strip, so to speak) elementary teachers can share with their students to spark reflection on empathy.

Embedded Practice

This issue also delves into more hotly debated SEL-related concepts. In an exclusive interview, Angela Duckworth discusses what she sees as misconceptions around her research on "grit," highlights the importance of interpersonal character strengths, and explains why measuring social-emotional skills can be tricky.
Richard Weissbourd of Harvard, meanwhile, positions social-emotional learning as a key part of confronting the problem of sexual harassment and misogyny in schools.
Our authors agree that improving social-emotional skills isn't a matter of completing an isolated program or following a set of steps. It must be embedded in the day-to-day work of schools and include modeling from adults who've strengthened their own social-emotional capacities. As Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it, "SEL is not a program or a curriculum, but a way to be together".

Guiding Questions for Select Articles in this Issue

"The Emotional Intelligence We Owe Students and Educators" by Marc A. Brackett
> Brackett's research found that, when surveyed, K–12 teachers gave negative emotional terms to say how they felt in school. At the end of a typical school day, jot down three words that capture your primary emotions throughout that day. What words surface? Do any surprise you?
> Brackett notes that, "used wisely, all emotions—positive and negative—become resources we draw on to inform our decisions, support our well-being, and help us achieve goals." If a negative feeling surfaced for you, probe it. How might tuning in to that feeling alert you to a change you should enact or a decision to make that would help you "survive and thrive"?
"Nine Competencies for Teaching Empathy" by Michele Borba
> Do you agree that we are facing a crisis of empathy in schools? What examples can you cite from your own school?
> Do any of Borba's nine competencies for empathy seem particularly lacking in your school or district? What practical steps could you or your school take to boost students' skills in these areas?
> In what ways do you and your colleagues model empathy in your school? In what ways could you improve your efforts?
"Seeding SEL Across Schools: Strategies for Leaders" by Meria Joel Carstarphen and Ed Graff
> Is SEL part of your district or school's strategic plan? Why or why not?
> In what ways could you improve communication and understanding around SEL in your school district?
> Carstarphen and Graff outline various steps they took to integrate SEL in their new districts. Which ones would be viable starting points for you?
> Are you able to document the impact or return on investment for SEL in your school or district?
"Can SEL Reduce School Violence?" by Amanda B. Nickerson
> Does your school or district include SEL in its school-safety plans. Why or why not?
> Nickerson says that educators' awareness of students' "social-emotional potential can make a difference in their trajectories." What does this mean for you?
> Nickerson explains that students' sense of belongingness or connectedness at school can reduce bullying and violence. What steps could you or your team take to foster this sense among students?
"What's Wrong with Well-Being?" by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley
> The authors invite educators to "look for areas of improvement" in their own social-emotional learning and well-being programs. Take a close look at the SEL program or curriculum your school uses. Do you see any of the problems Hargreaves and Shirley mention here evident?
> Consider the point that aiming for kids' well-being might mean "adjusting to this wider range of emotions [such as exhilaration or fear] rather than fitting children's diverse emotions into conventional classrooms." Do you agree?
End Notes

1 Blad, E. (2018, August 21). Schools should teach (and measure) "soft skills," parents and educators agree. [blog post] Education Week. "Rules for Engagement."

2 National Center on Education and the Economy. (2007). Tough choices for tough times. Washington, DC: Author.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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