Social-emotional learning is a growing need for schools across the United States. However, teachers do not always have the time, resources, and proper training needed to really help students develop sustainable coping skills.
Keep reading to learn about 3-must haves for any social-emotional learning solution that will build a student wellness program that hits goals and truly grabs students’ attention.
It’s hardly a secret: When students feel grounded and supported — mentally, physically, and social-emotionally — they thrive, in school and often, in life.
But here’s the rub:
Many of the programs that schools rely on to teach critical coping skills, like social-emotional learning (SEL), don’t produce positive outcomes for students struggling with a variety of needs. If we’re being honest — and we’ll look at the data in a second — most of them fall woefully short of any kind of meaningful change for students.
And change is desperately needed.
Just this month, a highly anticipated review of U.S. standardized test results suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic reversed nearly two decades of progress in math and reading for K-12 students.
Mentally, kids aren’t just struggling; many of them are in crisis. In 2021, Stateline, the news arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, reported that the number of cases of mental health struggles, behavioral outbursts, and mild-to-extreme forms of self-harm has been on the rise with some numbers jumping over 31 percent.
“Nearly every child in the country is suffering to some degree from the psychological effects of the pandemic. Suddenly everyone is talking about mental health. Parents, teachers, and students are openly discussing it.”
Sharon Hoover, co-director of the University of Maryland-based National Center for School Mental Health
While the American government has invested money in learning gaps, tutoring, and other necessities for schools nationwide, there’re still discrepancies when it comes to mental and physical well-being.
Student mental health and well-being are a priority in nearly every state with some schools even adopting social-emotional learning curriculums. The money, by all accounts, is there — which is rare. Yet, states and, by extension, local schools aren’t jumping to spend it.
There are all sorts of reasons for this hesitance. Like students, many administrators are returning in person to schools for the first time in months. Staffing shortages make delivering core learning programs, like math and reading, harder than before. In some cases, administrators are afraid they might be criticized for bringing in new solutions or fear they cannot supplement enough training for the staff.
But amid a rush of new and emerging classroom solutions promising gains in student mental health and well-being, it’s becoming increasingly clear that not all K-12 SEL solutions are created equal.
In one recent survey by vaunted education publisher McGraw-Hill, 93 percent of teachers equated social-emotional learning with academic learning in terms of overall importance. Yet just 22 percent said they felt “very prepared” to teach SEL in classrooms.
As someone who dedicates a big chunk of his day to helping EdTech entrepreneurs build and market solutions designed to close gaps in America’s K-12 schools — we see it and hear it all the time: Too many solutions that look good at first blush fail to deliver on the promise of sustainable real-world impact for students.
That’s the bad news.
The good news? Experience tells us there are three key features that, taken together, contribute to successful SEL and whole-child outcomes in elementary and middle school. As you think about where and how to invest your SEL dollars this school year, every solution you consider should meet, at minimum, these three criteria.
#1 Social-Emotional Learning Must be Relatable for Students
The research is clear. When students aren’t engaged in what they’re doing, be it inside or outside of the classroom, they don’t retain the information required to learn. When that happens, students have a hard time applying and modeling critical skills and/or behaviors.
Where social-emotional learning is concerned, a failure to engage means students will likely miss out on helpful real-world applications, like learning to control one’s emotions during a heated discussion at recess, or how to deal with feelings of rejection in the hallways at school.
When choosing the right SEL solution, the first question you should ask is “Does this content promise to engage my students in ways we know students want to be engaged?” not “Does this product excite me as an educator?”
Gone are the days when you could capture students’ interests and imaginations with basic video clips or a PowerPoint with compelling graphics.
To be clear, coupled with other modalities, video remains a powerful medium in K-12 classrooms. In one survey of educators, ViewSonic Corporation found that three-quarters of teachers (75 percent) connected so-called blended-learning models with increased student engagement. Sixty-three percent said the use of video helped increase the relevancy and quality of instructional materials.
The difference lies in how the video is integrated into the lesson and what it means for the student. Is it something students are asked simply to watch or is it part of a larger and more immersive educational experience, in which students are challenged to become active participants in their own learning and model certain behaviors?
#2 Ensure SEL Curriculum is Based on Industry-Recognized Academic Standards
Pedagogical alignment is equally critical. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of SEL solutions available to schools. Most of them claim some kind of pedagogical or academic alignment.
In the case of SEL, the gold standard in the United States is CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. These include the acquisition of knowledge and skill building in five core areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
So, if we look at the CASEL competencies and we look at the SEL program, we can ask the questions: “After experiencing the program, the service, the platform, whatever, is there a measurable outcome that delivers on that student’s acquisition of knowledge and building of skills? How is that represented? How is that tracked and reported through data analytics and dashboards?”
A teacher must know that if a third-grade student, for example, goes through the exercises, the lesson plans, and the unit guides, that he will effectively develop skills in alignment with CASEL, or another set of acceptable standards like those supported by the American School Counselors Association (ASCA), including Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.
Not only does PBIS say, “Hey, this is aligned,” it says, “Can I see that alignment reflected in the outcomes?” To see that alignment reflected, I need some type of mechanism that’s going to show me the student’s progress in a way that I can understand it.
It’s important to note that these standards manifest themselves specifically within states. Ohio, for example, has its own SEL standards that are pretty similar to the CASEL framework, but they might be nuanced to the needs of those who have researched and developed pedagogy and frameworks specific to that community. Always keep your specific needs in mind when evaluating new solutions, and make sure to ask how the technology can be deployed to meet your needs and deliver measurable outcomes.
#3 SEL Must be Easy to Integrate and Use with Instruction
The third must-have for K-12 SEL is the ease of adoption. Teacher burnout is real, and it is necessary for solutions to fit their needs.
That means the educators who’ve opted to stay have even more to do. In late summer and early fall, teachers are overwhelmed with new products and services. Like students, they have a lot that they are expected to do and learn.
When getting started with SEL, which isn’t typically something that teachers have prior experience with, you have to ask yourself, “How easy will this be to implement?” “Is what I’m asking my teachers to do here, reasonable, given everything else on their plates?”
The right technology can help. Even basic things that have nothing to do with the actual content can make a huge difference. Things like a Single-Sign-On, or SSO, save time and make it easier for teachers and students to log-on and get going without a lot of additional systems training or professional development.
Ease of adoption is also an important element to consider. Think about the pliability or overall flexibility of the SEL curriculum or program. You should look for programs that allow teachers to confidently exercise their professional judgment and student experience to help increase learning outcomes. Overall, it is needed to help build success without sacrificing learning impact or outcomes.
Every time you implement a new solution, there’s going to be a learning curve. The question is how long is that curve and at what point in the implementation process are you squandering precious teaching time as opposed to optimizing it?
If the solution helps teachers identify opportunities for teachable moments with students faster or better than they would normally and/or enables them to leverage those moments into more productive and effective educational experiences, chances are you’re on to something. Where SEL is concerned, engagement, efficacy and ease of use must go together. Just because it’s easy to use doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Just because it aligns to standards, doesn’t make it engaging.
We said it earlier, but it bears repeating: when students don’t feel safe and supported — mentally, physically, and emotionally — they don’t learn. As you consider SEL solutions for your school or district, aim to meet these three criteria when communicating with would-be providers. Always ask a lot of questions, and make sure the evidence matches the rhetoric.
There are several SEL solutions on the market right now.
If you are ready to get started with a social-emotional learning solution that ties all three criteria together and builds upon each other, moozoom is a cinematic video solution for teachers looking for video-modeling scenarios that help students learn. Alongside that, you can check out ViewSonic’s Education Solutions to make sure you build a comprehensive ecosystem that meets all students’ needs.
John Gamba is a serial entrepreneur who has founded, funded, and led several education ventures over his 25-year career. He currently serves as Entrepreneur in Residence and Director of Innovative Programs at Catalyst @ Penn GSE where he mentors aspiring education entrepreneurs and supports the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, now in its 13th year.