Many school districts want to increase social-emotional learning (SEL) programs but struggle with the idea of adding one more thing to already packed days. These skills, however, are also in high demand from employers: In October, Education Week reported that the nation faces a shortage of 1.4 million professionals equipped with communication, teamwork, critical thinking and other soft skills.
In a crowded afternoon session at SXSW EDU, panelists, led by Open Up Resources CEO Jessica Reid Sliwerski, argued that equipping students with the necessary SEL skills during the school day doesn't require additional programming. Instead, skills like conversation, collaboration, debate and reasoning should be infused into core subjects, including math and English language arts — similarly to how fluoride is infused in drinking water, ever-present and benefiting learners whether they actively realize it or not.
Facilitating a more robust, empathetic dialogue
Christina Riley, EL Education's associate director of curriculum design, said curriculum is a vehicle to prepare students for life, not just college and their careers. But teaching these skills in isolation doesn’t make as much sense to students as when they’re contextualized within core subjects.
Riley described how three dimensions of high-quality curriculum — skills and knowledge mastery, habits of character needed to be successful, and high-quality work — apply to SEL.
“When I’m designing curriculum, I’m thinking about how can we provide opportunities in the curriculum for students to do this,” she said, noting that educators must also have a strong understanding of SEL and their own skills within these realms — a point that has been echoed by extensive work from The Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development.
In addition to promoting these skills in their own actions, educators should provide resources and tools guiding how those skills can be demonstrated, as well as protocols for giving students equitable opportunities to share their voice and for English learners to collaborate in their home language. Visual reminders around the room can also provide students with cues for discussion norms.
It's also key to remember that students are in different places, socially and emotionally, in different grades. Primary learners love to play and explore, while middle schoolers are developing a sense of self and purpose. Curriculum must reflect these age-appropriate differences.
In an example, Riley told the crowd about a visit to a New York City school, where she saw 5th-grade boys have a discussion after reading about famous baseball player Jackie Robinson. Their focus: the factors that made him a successful leader of social change. In their efforts to identify the most important factor and help one another hone their individual arguments for an essay, the boys debated his talent versus his integrity versus his wife's influence. Their discussion was respectful and collegial, and they encouraged one another to share more evidence and offered support for further information gathering.
“They were listening carefully and thinking carefully,” Riley said.
Multiple paths to a solution
For Pam Betten, chief academic officer of Arizona's Sunnyside Unified School District, math is a particular area that can be difficult to combine with SEL. But, if approached the right way, math can build skills like critical confidence, analysis, reasoning and creative problem-solving, she said.
The idea that some learners aren't "math people" is particularly pervasive, she said, and rectifying it requires educators to become conscious of what values they send when stepping in front of a classroom. Those kinds of value statements stick with students and impact their identities as learners, impacting how they interact with content and with others, Betten said.
Because math can be very linear and often comes with a set of "right" answers, it's also easy to place too much focus on a specific way to get to that solution. Educators should, however, encourage creative thinking, analysis and reasoning of the processes taken to solve a problem and arrive at its solution. If math is just compliance-based and focused on whether an answer is right or wrong, there’s no discourse to let these pieces of SEL be woven in.
A gateway to cultural relevancy in curriculum
In her work as an educator in California's Oakland Unified School District, Lacy Asbill, founding director of the Moving Forward Institute — a San Francisco Bay-area nonprofit that works with underserved students — found SEL skills can be a “game-changing catalyst” for those least served by the system. But for educators, engaging in conversation with these students can sometimes feel tricky and intimidating when it comes to making curriculum relevant in students' daily lives and communities.
Finding ways to do this, however, is a “key instructional lever," Asbill said, recommending that teachers find relevant texts, including "The Sun Is Also A Star" or "The Hate U Give" to unpack social-emotional themes for critical analysis of what it means to be a young person in America today.
This relevance also helps students learn how to solve persistent social problems that have spanned generations, with students coming to see schools as a place to unlock the skills needed to affect change.
Sliwerski added that high-quality curriculum and a nurturing classroom culture go hand-in-hand, and that educators must create “psychological safe spaces” for students where it’s OK to make mistakes.
Paying attention to whether students have opportunities to share their thoughts, questions and answers is also key, Riley said. While on her first of multiple visits to a school during curriculum implementations, she said she sees a lot of teacher talk, students raising their hands and the same ones being selected — with a lot of fear of choosing the wrong answer. But what she always hopes to see on subsequent visits are transitions into students being more comfortable speaking with one another, less teacher talking, students speaking and listening to one another through the set protocols, and so on.
Educators, Asbill added, often try to respond to competing classroom initiatives and are left with the sense that they're being stretched even thinner to meet students’ needs. When teachers and school leaders recognize that SEL takes an integrated approach, she said, they can break through silos and identify concrete resources that can be infused with deep SEL opportunities and cultural relevance, crossing off all competing needs.