Why We Need to Dig Deep on Social-Emotional Learning Together
Close your eyes for a moment and think about one of your favorite teachers from grade school. What do you remember? Chances are, you remember as much about how they taught as what they taught. You remember that classroom’s environment and how that teacher made you feel. Inspired. Energized. Safe. Creative.
As we’ve written about before in this space, social and emotional learning (SEL) isn’t a new thing. We heard about the need to look more holistically at the development of our young people when the Vision Coalition spoke to 4,000 Delawareans during the creation of Student Success 2025 back in 2014.
SEL is something that great teachers have been doing instinctively for generations. But it’s fair to say that it wasn’t until more recently that cognitive science sharpened our definition of SEL and reinforced the need for a broader vision of learning that’s as foundational as our traditional academic learning.
What’s new? Given that we were seeing pockets of work on SEL cropping up throughout the state and that nine out of 10 respondents to our 2017 Rodel Teacher Council survey said schools should place more emphasis on SEL, we launched what we believe is the most comprehensive statewide landscape analysis of SEL in the country. Later in the summer and fall, we’ll work with the community to unpack what we found and hope that it helps accelerate the good work already started in classrooms statewide.
Why now? SEL’s reemergence into the spotlight in recent years is a response to the rapidly evolving world that our young people will soon inherit. For years employers have told us that too many new employees lack the “people skills” needed to work in a complex environment. Meanwhile rapid shifts in our economy exacerbated the income divide, leading to roughly four out of every 10 Delaware public school students now living in poverty. And when poverty is paired with issues like violence and addiction, it can not only impact a child’s ability to learn, but weigh heavily on the teachers and administrators, too. Adults inside the school deserve thoughtful, comprehensive social emotional skill development, which in turn can lead to culturally responsive and engaging places to teach and to learn.
What’s next? Core academics are and always will be central and vital to the educational experience. But what we’ve come to realize is that skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, empathy, and creativity are not just nice to have, they are foundational skills our students need in order to be successful in the classroom and in life.
If we want our young people to go out into the world healthy, caring, and able to respond to a fast-paced, global society—we need to embed SEL into our schools to meet the needs of all students, with particular attention to the unique needs of students of color, English learners, and low-income students. If we, as a state, are serious about ensuring that our learning environments are safe and welcoming places for all students to grow, learn, and thrive, we need to openly discuss and address Delaware’s, and our nation’s, long and continuing history of racial inequity, and the opportunities for SEL to advance equity in our schools. As the report notes, educators need support to understand and affirm students’ and families’ backgrounds and cultural heritages, and acknowledge and address the impact of race, racism, and implicit bias in education.
Moving forward, together. At this stage in the game, people in and around education, nationally, and within Delaware, agree that SEL is important. But as we found out in our research, there are dozens of definitions and interpretations of what it actually means, how it manifests inside classrooms, or how we can quantify it.
We heard loud and clear that we need to get on the same page. As a state, we need to expand our definition of student success. We need a common understanding of what we actually mean when we say “SEL,” and how SEL can be used to support students.
A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware focuses on the efforts underway across Delaware to support students, families, and educators in developing their SEL skills.
(Members of the Rodel Teacher Council also weighed in this month with a new policy brief. Creating a Common Language for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware urges leaders to provide a stronger framework for integrating SEL into academic development.)
We offer this report to shine a light on the current SEL landscape in Delaware and help policymakers, educators and partners in the education, government, healthcare, nonprofit, and business sectors make decisions and investments to strengthen the work that’s underway supporting social and emotional development.
How we did it. While Rodel kicked this project off, it wouldn’t have been possible without the shared financial and intellectual partnership of the Arsht-Cannon Fund, Christina Care Health System, the Delaware Community Foundation, and Nemours Children’s Health Care System, as well as our Steering Committee of local stakeholders.
Education First and Edge Research led the data collection and analysis. The research that led to these findings included a broad range of surveys, interviews, and engagements with many school, district, and community leaders, and site visits to a variety of Delaware schools spanning all three counties. To ensure that their research rung true to those working with Delaware’s young people every day, our Steering Committee worked with Education First to provide feedback on their findings along the way.
Our researchers spent time in public schools across Delaware, and observed a variety of rich social and emotional learning in action: educators helping students recognize, understand and express their emotions, and develop and practice strategies to regulate those emotions when needed. They saw teachers focused on building strong relationships and helping students develop strategies to work together and solve problems, including by persisting through challenges and learning from failures. (For more examples of SEL work underway in Delaware, click here.)
But more pressingly, we found we need to co-construct what SEL means for our children with their parents and the community. While the definitions, expectations, and measures can be informed by academia, they need to be shaped and informed by meaningful engagement with parents, students, and educators—early and often.
In addition, we need to expand partnerships between schools and health services, mental health facilities, and community non-profits to ensure students and families have the supports they need.
Now the real work begins. We hope this report serves as a springboard for those conversations and subsequent action. Our hope is that building a common framework and language around SEL will help practitioners and parents change the learning experience for our kids. We also heard that this SEL work needs to inform how we train and support educators. In fact, we hope that it inspires teachers to experiment, innovate, and work together to figure out how to continually get better at addressing students’ needs. We hope school leaders will see new opportunities to build community partnerships, as well as curated curriculum and tools to give SEL a stronger backbone and so teachers can build off of one another’s good work.
Addressing these challenges would benefit from deep, sustained collaboration across schools and with a range of nonprofit, health, social service, government, and mental health supports. In Delaware, we know that kind of collaboration is possible. Stay tuned for more opportunities this summer and fall to share your ideas and take action. Let’s dig in together.