Social Emotional Learning: A Process, Not A Product

Social and emotional learning as a field of inquiry has gained tremendous momentum in academic research over the past decade.  School leaders, looking for theoretical constructs to build successful school communities, find the pro-social data that supports social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom hard to ignore.   Organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the National School Climate Center (NSCC) offer social and emotional learning models, action plans, and assessment tools for educators to use in a systemic framework to drive efforts to better support students in their learning communities.   Classroom teachers, strategizing around methods of SEL integration begin to see academic improvement via enhancing students’ social skills and fostering emotional intelligence, rather than increasing the more traditional supports of tutoring, homework, and tiered levels of support.

However, while current SEL research, organizations, and educators can see clearly the promise of SEL, how to explicitly integrate SEL strategies into the teaching & learning community and how to implement SEL core components in a school culture are much less clear.  In fact, unlike other areas of classroom instruction, the term “best-practices” in the domain of SEL does not yet exist.   As such, we are designing classroom instruction in hopes of developing consistent best practices through the intersection of theoretical education and adolescent developmental frameworks into our professional learning communities.  Our goal is to create a process which includes developing, implementing, and assessing SEL implementation within each discipline to find out what actually works and, in the process, define what exactly are explicit SEL best-practices and how the content of SEL can be most successfully integrated into a high school teaching & learning community.

Addressing Implementation Challenges

One of the most common challenges facing educators is moving from implicit SEL instruction towards explicit SEL instruction.  “We already do this!” is a frequent response in discussing integrating SEL into the classroom.   By exploring school-wide and classroom SEL data, pro-social teaching strategies, and SEL and adolescent development theoretical constructs, we can begin to define for each discipline what explicit SEL instruction looks like.

Another challenge we faced is that most of the existing research in the field of SEL focuses on elementary and middle school programming efforts.  While these programs may indeed foster SEL skills at those levels, little evidence exists for successful programs or practices at the high school level.  Because of this and in order to optimize our efforts, we decided early on to move away from a ‘program’ perspective and into a ‘practice’ mode of SEL implementation.   Along with the CASEL framework and strategies from the NSCC, we also integrated the American Psychological Association’s 20 Badges Program into our implementation design efforts.  Specifically, the components of the Social Emotional Learning badge highlight the intersection of education and adolescent psychology to better design strategies that support effective teaching and learning for high school students.

Since research about successful practices and explicit instruction is still emerging, we designed our early efforts around implementation to address the following 2 questions:

1. How do we gather and use SEL data?
2. How do we integrate SEL as content rather than an add-on topic?

SEL Data

Collecting SEL data is a relatively new aspect of data collection in high schools.  While schools have surveyed high school students for years on aspects of school climate and achievement, very few specifically surveyed students on their perceptions of their social skills, emotional intelligence and their teaching & learning communities. Once we engaged in the process of collecting SEL data, our focus became how to best use the data.  The first entry point for us was through professional development.  Through Lunch & Learns and targeted department trainings, we are able to immediately share out some of the biggest findings – typically 3 areas of strengths and 3 areas that demonstrated a need for growth.  Through pair shares and small team activities, our teachers could develop strategies to shift their current instructional practices as well as consider the data in their reflection time and goal-setting plans.  Our data also offered us a window into the ‘random acts of SEL’ throughout our school, which we appreciated to find but now seek to sync and unify.

SEL as Content

Perhaps one of most complex aspects of SEL implementation we have explored has been treating SEL as its own content.   Rather than using a program or a stand-alone curriculum, we are viewing SEL as a core component of teaching and learning within each discipline and in all aspects of our high school community.  This means working with every teacher, team, division, and department to first understand SEL as an interdisciplinary content area.  While our teachers are experts in their discipline, few recognize SEL as the nexus of adolescent development, neurocognition, psychology, and education theories.  Secondly, we are asking teachers to consider what SEL integration looks like in their discipline.  While we agreed early on that SEL implementation should look differently in English than it does in Math, agreeing on how it lives and breathes in each discipline takes a thoughtful and informed approach.  It is in these challenging, complex and insightful moments that we begin to see SEL as a process, not a product.

About the Author

Molly A. Gosline, Ed.M., M.A. is the SEL Coordinator at Adlai E. Stevenson High School. Prior to this role, Ms. Gosline worked as an elementary, middle, and high school counselor as well as a state director of the Office of Safe & Drug-Free Schools. She has been a school climate consultant for nearly a decade. Ms. Gosline earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Risk & Prevention program within the Human Development & Psychology department. Photo credit: Harvard Graduate School of Education