It’s hard to go anywhere in education right now without hearing the term Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Many districts highlight SEL as a core strategic initiative. Books like Mindset and Grit dominate the international bestseller lists. And SEL concepts like growth mindset have impacted classrooms across the country.

But what if SEL is a fad? What if SEL is like the failed self-esteem movement from the 1980’s and 1990’s, doomed to irrelevance in a few years?

Turns outs, we decide if SEL is the real thing or a fad. If we want SEL to continue to be a powerful force in education, we have to do avoid some common pitfalls. These three practices alone are enough to ensure that SEL has a short lifespan:

1. Make SEL only about the kids.

Although the temptation to begin SEL curriculum with the students is very alluring, the full effects of SEL will not be evident unless it is part of a school-wide culture. Adults create the culture of the school. Their attitudes and priorities are what the children breathe. 

John Hattie, Laureate Professor and Deputy Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, believes that you have to “change the environment, not the child."  Without adults creating a culture facilitating SEL success, little to nothing will change for the students. We know student behavior is influenced by their environment from Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. If children are told using their phone at the dinner table is bad, but then see their parents on the phone, they are less likely to change their behavior. The same goes for SEL.

How do you prevent this from happening or fix it once it has started? Instead of starting SEL programs with students only, prioritize getting the adults engaged and excited. Begin by providing adequate training to teachers, fellow administrators, and staff on SEL and growth mindset. We want to avoid teachers implementing an SEL curriculum without fully understanding it.

2. Talk about SEL, but don’t apply it.

SEL has become a buzzword in education. It is listed in school improvement plans, district mandates, and in materials promoting schools. Without SEL language, schools may fear that they will be seen negatively for not caring about holistic growth.

However, SEL only has power if it is actually applied and implemented well. It is easy to talk about growth mindset and SEL at an assembly, but, in order to harness the power of SEL, students need space to practice their SEL skills in meaningful situations.

Imagine a school said, “We’re really big on math. So we’re going to have the kids watch our best math teacher do math and look at posters of math for 30 minutes.” Would we be surprised when the math skills didn’t improve?

Administrators should prioritize putting SEL into practice. CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) recommends pairing explicit SEL instruction with integration into teacher practices and content areas. These approaches may include encouraging more project-based learning or focusing on exam retakes to exhibit mastery as opposed to performance goals. These strategies will lead to skill acquisition in the short term and positive behavior change in the long term.

If SEL is "taught" but not applied, administrators will not see enough results to continuing prioritizing SEL. Without such strong results, we risk SEL fading into another fad.

3.  Assume all teachers have SEL background.

Not every educator brings the same background knowledge and strengths to SEL implementation. For instance, if you have a room of twenty teachers and told each of them that they each had to teach Spanish the following week, it likely would not go over well. You may have a Spanish teacher in the group, a Biology teacher who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, and a math teacher from a Spanish-speaking country, but you would probably also have a group of people who do not know Spanish at all, nevermind the best ways to teach language acquisition.

Yet when it comes to SEL, we often expect all teachers to immediately start with energy, enthusiasm, and skill. If someone is not as enthusiastic right away, we dismiss them as “not buying in”-yet that educator may feel intimidated or unequipped to teach SEL.

Instead of applying a blanket approach, play to strengths of your team by differentiating your SEL training based on the levels of experience of your staff and the specific needs of your students. One option is to begin with counselors and social workers in the classroom to train students with staff observing. Layer implementation to have more staff participate in teaching it the following year. Creating pathways for all staff members allows them to engage in the discipline with energy and passion.


Tying it Together

The good news is that you can avoid these three common pitfalls. You can create a school culture led by well-trained adults who help students put SEL into practice. While it might be easier to have the student assembly, hang some posters, and call it a day for SEL, if your want to see lasting change that shows the power of SEL, then you have to get the full school involved. You will see the difference for your students, your staff, and their futures.

Looking to create a school culture of growth? Mawi Learning's solutions can help

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