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The Conditions for Success

Making social-emotional learning sustainable
Hearts growing in garden illustration

Efforts to bolster social and emotional learning (SEL) have gained pace over the last 10 years, as researchers and policymakers have zeroed in on “whole child” approaches and the interrelationship between social, emotional, and academic development. Those efforts are now accelerating, as schools, districts, and states rush to navigate learning during a pandemic.

Yet as sociologist Jal Mehta cautions in a recent article, many reform initiatives like SEL have been “felled by a predictable set of political and organizational dynamics.” Mehta says SEL can avoid that fate. It already has “a track record of verifiable, if modest, success,” he argues. “SEL has succeeded by meeting real demand for its services, setting modest and specific goals, and avoiding a one-size-fits-all mentality.”

Examining the successes and failures of past initiatives, Mehta finds lessons in three examples of schoolwide approaches to SEL — Reggio Emilia, expeditionary learning, and James P. Comer schools. Drawing from these models, he suggests that reformers and SEL advocates avoid earlier pitfalls by following these four principles:

1.    Integrate academics with SEL

Cognitive science research links student learning with emotional state. As Mehta writes, “Good teachers have long known that building the right kind of climate and culture is crucial to a successful classroom; thus, there are ample opportunities for this kind of integration.” Yet simply having a chunk of time for SEL instruction isn’t enough — classroom and school norms and routines must also model SEL lessons.

2.    Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach

The program’s goals should be clear and tailored to match the setting in which it’s implemented. Because there is so much variation within the United States, success is more likely if approaches can be customized.

3.    Stimulate demand, but don’t mandate

“There is no faster way to lose support for an initiative than to require that everyone take part. And there is no faster way to corrupt an initiative than to put high stakes on its outcomes,” he warns. Instead, think about ways to cultivate support through awareness campaigns and encourage communities to perform needs assessments to ensure there is local support.

4.    Increase the supply of models and guidance

Be prepared to meet demand with infrastructure. Mehta recommends funding intermediaries that can develop models, provide on-the-ground support, and collect data to inform practice.

Key Takeaways

  • Identify the needs of your community and cultivate local support.
  • Use a model or curriculum that addresses the needs expressed by the community.
  • Integrate SEL into classroom curriculum, norms, and routines.

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