An Antidote to the “Fever” of Social and Emotional Learning: Build from Science and Evidence, and Ask the Right Questions

Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s recent commentary, “Time To Put an Ice Pack on the Fever for Social and Emotional Learning,” includes some valid points, but also oversimplifications and inaccuracies. Asking the wrong questions, such as whether to focus on SEL versus academics, risks perpetuating stale narratives that undermine actual progress in the field and presents SEL as a polarizing, partisan issue.

Two key points are important to get right. Specifically, as we’ve written before, SEL skills are malleable and teachers and schools can do a great deal to build them. High-quality teaching has elements of high-quality academic instruction and high-quality practices that promote students’ social and emotional development and well-being.

There are several points, however, where we agree. Finn is correct that we shouldn’t oversell the capacity of the instruments that are frequently employed to capture and represent SEL skills and competencies. We don’t have robust evidence that many of the tools regularly employed generate valid representations of behavior in the real world, accurately capture change over time in a child or classroom, or remain stable across settings. Until we build this evidence base, we should think carefully about how we use these measures in school contexts.

In addition, as we all seem to agree (including Stacey Childress in her response to Finn), we shouldn’t overdo accountability, whether it’s high or low stakes. We see the importance and the potential of using data for formative purposes (e.g., choosing and planning strategies and practices, etc.), but without certainty (see above) that self- or teacher-report Likert scale-rating systems are linked to actual behavior within and over time, we should not rely on those measures for accountability.

Relatedly, context is key. Focusing on school culture and climate is beneficial for improving student learning as the characteristics of settings and environments play an important role in human development. Measurement and assessment in SEL should therefore be relevant, meaning that children deserve to be understood in relation to their ecological systems and experiential landscapes. Context also includes what children bring with them into the classroom. Finn rightly notes that understanding the challenges and experiences children face, whether it be homelessness, divorce, or another stressor, should be considered when selecting interventions, developing measures, and interpreting the results.

As suggested above, we disagree with Finn when he questions the extent to which SEL skills are malleable, and how much schools and teachers can reasonably do to foster these skills. Research consistently and reliably does show that SEL skills are malleable, meaning they shift and change when children and youth are exposed to SEL interventions. As we wrote in a previous piece in Education Next, effective SEL programming that focuses on concrete, teachable skills has been shown in many studies to lead to gains in important outcomes. We also know that schools and classrooms, and what teachers do in them, can powerfully shape children’s outcomes. Indeed, one group of researchers hypothesized that interventions affect students’ SEL skills directly via curricula and other activities, and indirectly via positive changes in the overall environment, meaning school and classroom culture, climate, and the network of relationships and interactions. Just as other settings do, the school context embodies developmentally salient opportunities for learning that set kids up for later success by building foundational academic and life skills. Even if we agree that children only spend a small amount of time in school, it is clear they have highly salient experiences and important interactions in them that shape their growth and development over time. If we were to follow Finn’s logic, we might ask: why bother with education reform or school improvement at all?

Finn pits SEL and academics against each other. But, we know that both domains of human development are critical and linked to outcomes we care about over the lifespan. The right question is to ask how can we effectively foster both domains in an integrated way. Success requires more than the ability to multiply two numbers. It also requires a host of non-academic skills, including the ability to communicate with your teacher or in a job interview, to sit still and complete your work, and to manage emotions that arise when faced with a frustrating situation. Moreover, getting to success in multiplication and every other academic and non-academic task of schooling demands these other skills. Our instructional work should be aligned with these fundamentals.

Our antidote? Build on what we know, and ask the right questions. Above all, closely align knowledge and evidence with strategies and practices with measurement and evaluation.

Sophie P. Barnes is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Stephanie M. Jones is the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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