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For a New Approach to Social Emotional Learning, Look to Kernels

Professor Stephanie Jones and the EASEL Laboratory receive a grant to broaden work and partnerships using kernels of practice – low-cost, targeted strategies for social emotional learning in classrooms.

When it comes to developing methods for social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions, teachers need the flexibility and freedom to select strategies that best fit the diverse needs of their students and classrooms.

As part of a new approach supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Stephanie Jones and the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning Laboratory (EASEL) will develop and pilot a new set of evidence-based kernels of practice — strategies and activities that have potential to promote specific, positive behavior changes. These are simple but effective techniques that teachers can easily use and adapt to meet their needs.

“There is now a pressing need to develop and pilot an array of flexible and differentiated social, emotional, and behavioral supports for children,” said Jones. “Our work with kernels of practice dovetails with CZI’s dedication to supporting teachers in gaining the knowledge, tools, and professional development they need for success in their classrooms. The concrete strategies we will develop and pilot through this grant are a way to provide a low-cost, flexible, and personalized approach that enables providers to select only those activities that best fit the learning styles, skill levels, interests, and goals of their classrooms and schools.”

CZI seeks to empower more teachers and school leaders to create learning environments that meet the unique needs, interests, and learning preferences of each student while supporting them as a whole person.

Jones’ work with kernels of practice began with Brain Games, an intervention focused on one area of SEL development, executive function and self-regulation, that has served as a prototype for the kernels idea. Brain Games includes 31 games that are designed to be easily integrated into everyday classroom and school activities that help students exercise memory, attention, and mental flexibility, and help them learn how to listen carefully, use self-control, and follow directions. After piloting Brain Games in schools and classrooms, the next phase will focus on developing kernels that target other SEL skills, such as perspective taking, empathy, and emotion understanding.

The project, supported by CZI, has three main goals:

  • Developing a menu of low-burden, feasible, and sustainable SEL strategies that can be tailored and personalized for the specific needs of classrooms and students.
  • Collecting data on the feasibility and effectiveness of specific kernels, and creating a sustainable data infrastructure for users.
  • Improving academic, social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes for students, classroom and school climates, and student-teacher and peer relationships.

The EASEL team will implement this through four discrete stages: Pull, Tweak, Pilot, and Share. Drawing from a content analysis of 25 leading evidence-based SEL curricula, the researchers first define, identify, and make ready a set of SEL kernels. Working closely with their school partners, they will pilot and refine the kernels, and then analyze them in a large, randomized study. Ultimately, the research team will use these findings to further refine and disseminate kernels more widely via accessible platforms.

Support from CZI allows us to draw upon the work we have already done,” said Jones, “including a content analysis of 25 leading evidence-based SEL programs, to develop a set of kernels that are grounded in research and practice, and to work directly with teachers to pilot the kernels and learn from them with the larger goal of generating effective and responsive practices that support children’s healthy development and well-being.”


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