Social Emotional Learning and Family Engagement
What is Social-Emotional Learning To You?
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), sometimes called Life Skills, has gained wide attention over the last few decades. And as the Wallace Foundation says in their comprehensive review of 33 SEL frameworks, high quality, evidence based SEL program have been shown to positively impact students across many domains. From behavioral improvements to academic performance, well designed SEL programs benefit students, schools, families, and communities in myriad ways.
But despite the known importance and benefits of social and emotional learning, many families and educators remain unsure about what skills and strategies drive those positive outcomes. In essence, for many, the question remains, “What exactly is SEL?” For educators who want to offer SEL programs that meet their school and student’s unique needs, the multiple social-emotional learning curriculum, frameworks, and perspectives can be a lot to process. Understanding what SEL can offer, and the different learning opportunities embedded within the SEL umbrella, can help find the best fit program to meet local needs.
Defining SEL: 3 Perspectives
SEL is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success. Collectively, these skills provide students with the foundation that makes the learning process more productive and enjoyable for themselves, their families, and the school community.
SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.
The Wallace foundation dug into this question, conducting a careful analysis of research and practice. They then refined these findings through further review of the literature that links SEL to positive child outcomes. Through this careful work they identified 6 broad domains within SEL. These include: cognitive, emotion, social, values, perspectives, and identity.
Skills and Competencies
Skills and competencies are often considered the traditional areas of SEL, and are represented by the inner circle of the Framework for Social and Emotional Learning.
The cognitive domain includes skills students need in order to achieve goals. Within this domain, focus areas include attention control, inhibitory control, working memory and planning skills, cognitive flexibility, and critical thinking. This set of skills is also often referred to as “executive function.”
The emotion domain comprises skills and competencies related to understanding, regulating, and expressing one’s own emotions as well as understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. Within this domain, focus areas include emotional knowledge and expression, emotional and behavioral regulation, and empathy/perspective taking.
The social domain covers skills for positive relationships. Here we find the skills and competencies students need to engage with others in a healthy manner and navigate social interactions. Within this domain, focus areas include understanding social cues, conflict resolution/social problem solving, and prosocial/cooperative behavior.
In addition to the traditional SEL areas outlined above, the Wallace Foundation also identifies three additional domains that “influence how a person views and understands themselves and the world around them.”(Wallace Foundation, 2021). These are represented in the outer ring of the Framework for Social and Emotional Learning.
The values domain incorporates the habits, skills, and knowledge students need to become members of specific communities. Within this domain, focus areas include ethical values, performance values, civic values, and intellectual values.
The perspectives domain covers the way a child perceives and approaches the world around them. Within this domain, focus areas include gratitude, optimism, openness, and enthusiasm/zest.
The identity domain covers the way a child views themselves as an individual. Within this domain, focus areas include self-knowledge, purpose, self-efficacy/growth mindset, and self-esteem.
What Outcomes Could We See from SEL?
Benefits of SEL According to Research
Research over the last several decades has demonstrated the benefits of social emotional learning in middle school , elementary school, or even high school – documenting effects on positive academic learning, interpersonal, and mental health outcomes. In a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning (SEL) programs including 270,034 kindergarten through high school students, positive impacts were demonstrated across multiple outcome areas, including:
- Improved classroom behavior
- Gains on standardized testing scores
- Decrease in behavioral problems
- Improved attitudes about the self, others, and school
- Decrease in emotional distress
- Decrease in substance abuse
Studies have also shown that SEL benefits are persistent across demographic groups and have positive long-term effects. In fact, one long-term study (Taylor et al, 2017) on the impact of SEL programs showed that kindergartners with stronger SEL competencies were more likely to:
- Graduate from high school
- Complete a college degree
- Obtain stable employment in young adulthood
SEL and Equity
The guiding principle of educational equity is that all students deserve fair access to resources they need to succeed.
One of the most important of these resources is a high-quality educational experience. The stronger a student’s social emotional skills, the more primed they are for learning in and outside of school. Also, the relationship skills that children gain with social emotional learning allow them to empathize with others from different backgrounds and lived experiences.
When we support students in cultivating a positive sense of self and self-knowledge, they are better able to advocate for themselves and others.
Parents and caregivers play a critical role in developing the social emotional skills of their children. They are their children’s first teacher, role model, and life-long learning partner. Aligning around social emotional learning is an important component of family engagement in schools and in education.
Integrate Family Voice and Knowledge
Strong family engagement programming provides opportunities to integrate the knowledge, goals, and perspectives of families to best meet students’ SEL needs. For example, when ParentPowered surveyed families about the effects of the pandemic on student mental health, we got a wide variety of responses.
In addition to emotional development, topics of concern included screen time, connection to community, focus and attention, motivation, social skills, and more. When school leaders build a family-informed understanding of the strengths and needs of their families, they can tailor family communications, programming, and services to the specific concerns most common in their own community.
Students also thrive when provided with culturally responsive education, which can only be accomplished through collaborative relationships with parents. When schools build an understanding of families’ lived experiences, culture, and traditions, they can use that understanding to inform curriculum and teaching practices. This helps kids feel represented, seen, and valued, which positively impacts their sense of themselves as students and individuals within the school community.
Align SEL Programming with Family and Student Needs
When families and schools have healthy two-way communications systems in place, educators are better able to get the information necessary to help ensure basic needs are met.
Children handle tough times better when their needs for food, clothing, hygiene, and other basic needs are met. Understanding families’ needs and helping them find resources lays the foundation for students to build health SEL skills. In fact, concrete support in times of need is one of the 5 protective factors against the effects of trauma, according to the Strengthening Families framework. Building a strong two-way communication system with families opens the door to accessing this critical information.
For example, behavioral problems at school might be the tip of the iceberg of a real mental health challenge. Caregivers can often provide more information about their child’s mental health status which will contextualize what’s going on at school.
In addition, caregivers may have mental health needs that are going unmet. One of the 5 protective factors known to buffer the effects of trauma is parental resilience. When parents can bounce back from stress, they can help their children do so as well. This means that school leaders who promote caregiver self-care and mental wellness are simultaneously promoting children’s social emotional learning. Self-care for grown-ups can be simpler than expected! Giving families ways to access community resources is another way to support their mental wellness and student wellbeing, as well.
Providing fun and easy SEL resources to families as well as their children is well worth the time it takes.
SEL Competencies Families can Build
Giving families easy ways to build social emotional learning skills at home can strengthen both the social and emotional development of the child and the relationship between families and the school.
In surveys of ParentPowered families, we find that some of parents’ favorite messages are ones that focus on the SEL skills below.
Expressing and Understanding Emotions
Parents highlight activities that give them a window into how their child is feeling. Families are often eager for ways to better understand how their child is processing changes. These can be predictable changes—like a new school year or the arrival of a new sibling—or unpredictable changes—like those caused by the pandemic.
Calm-down strategies have been extremely popular among parents. In particular, parents have appreciated strategies for helping kids to breathe. Ideas for managing BIG feelings and active calm-down strategies are also favorites. Examples include taking a wiggle break or having a quick dance party to help redirect a child and work through frustration.
Parents and caregivers regularly call out activities that help kids focus and follow directions. These include creating family routines, planning and preparing for homework, and playing games that build a child’s ability to follow directions.
Parents and caregivers love ideas for involving their child in household jobs. They tell us that they feel proud of the child and that it makes daily life a little easier. Engaging in household jobs also gives the child a way to become a part of the team at home that makes their family function.
Following on the educational disruptions of the last few years, parents have expressed concern that children are behind on building social skills that come from spending time in person with peers and other community members. So it makes sense that activities that help kids connect with others have been valuable to parents.
Self-Esteem and Positive Encouragement
Parents often mention that cueing into their children’s positive behaviors helps them to see things in a positive light. Providing positive feedback about a child and encouraging parents to share that feedback is a good way to encourage an SEL skill-building moment while also strengthening the home-school relationship.
Along with social emotional learning, another topic that’s been in the limelight lately, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is trauma-informed practices. So what exactly is the relationship between these two ideas?
What is Trauma?
First, let’s explain trauma-informed practices. Unfortunately, a high proportion of children have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which the CDC defines as “potentially traumatic events that can have negative lasting effects on health and well-being.” Experiences can include anything physically or emotionally harmful or even life-threatening that happens to the child before they are 18. ACEs can be single events, like a car accident, or ongoing, such as having a loved one who is engaged in substance misuse.
According to a 2014 research brief from Child Trends, economic hardship and divorce are the two most common ACEs experienced by children in the United States. These and other events such as alcohol abuse in the family, violence, mental illness, and incarceration can often result in trauma, which can have long-term negative effects on well-being.
What is Trauma-Informed Practice?
Fortunately, children who experience trauma are not irreparably damaged. With the right support, they have the potential to heal and thrive in school and life. Research has shown the ways that educators and community partners such as mental health experts and community health workers can walk alongside families to help mitigate the negative effects of trauma. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a source of information and resources for trauma-informed care.
SEL and trauma-informed practices (also known trauma-sensitive practices) are highly interrelated. Social and emotional competency is one of the five protective factors according to the Strengthening Families framework. This means that when children gain strong social-emotional skills like self-awareness, emotional understanding, self-regulation, relationship skills, and responsible decision making, they are actually better protected against the effects of trauma.
SAMHSA’s Trauma Informed Approach for Organizations
- All people in the organization have a basic realization about trauma and understand how it can affect communities, families, and individuals
- People in the organization can recognize the signs of trauma
- The organization will respond by applying the principles of a trauma-informed approach
- The organization and people will seek to resist re-traumatization
How Can SEL and Trauma-Informed Practices Work Together?
These two related approaches are best used in combination. Embracing both social emotional learning and trauma-informed (TI) practices, such as including them both in the same professional development, avoids confusion and a sense of initiative overload for teachers and school staff. The result of implementing SEL and TI together will be “safe, equitable, and engaging learning environments…[that] help students build skills that foster resilience en route to lifelong thriving” (2021 Issue Brief on the Integration of Trauma-Sensitive Schools and Social and Emotional Learning from Penn State and AIR).
We’ve discussed the ways that social-emotional skills impact a student on their individual developmental journey. It’s clear that the personal well-being and cognitive functioning of students is improved when schools and families partner to foster their social emotional learning. But what does the impact look like on a school or school district level? Can investing in SEL programs ultimately make administrators’ and teachers’ lives easier?
According to research, the answer is yes. SEL programs that support the development of emotional learning competencies, even by grade level, have been shown by research to have a measurable effect on key metrics that schools track.
SEL can boost academic performance
- One meta analysis published in Child Development examined more than 200 school-based, universal SEL programs and found an average 11-percentile point gain in achievement for students involved (Durlak et al., 2011).
- A smaller meta analysis published in the same journal six years later synthesized the findings from eight different studies measuring academic effects of SEL interventions. The researchers found that students who received the SEL support performed an average 13 percentile points higher on academic measures than those who did not (Taylor et al., 2017).
SEL can lower dropout rates and truancy
- A randomized control trial (a study design which is considered the gold standard for demonstrating causality in educational research) with junior high school students in rural China found that an SEL program reduced dropout by 1.6 percentage points (Huan Wang et al., 2016).
- A randomized control trial with a mostly Black, high-poverty high school student population in Chicago’s south side found that non-academic supports involving CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) increased expected graduation rates by 14 points (Cook et al., 2014).
SEL can reduce psychological distress and behavior challenges
- It’s not difficult to imagine how a child who has learned to identify and manage emotions, solve problems, and make responsible decisions would be much less likely to display disruptive behavior, fight, or bully.
- A country-wide study found that elementary schools with more counselors also had fewer behavior problems, controlling for other factors such as socioeconomic status of the students served (Reback, 2010).
Cultivating SEL skills can lead to a positive school climate and improve teacher retention
- According to the National School Climate Center, “studies in both SEL and school climate show that (1) when students feel a sense of belonging and community, their ability to accept feedback and persevere in the face of challenge improves, and (2) a positive school climate is correlated with higher academic achievement, and even better health outcomes for students.” (schoolclimate.org)
- Teachers with better emotional skills have greater job satisfaction and are less likely to experience burnout (CASEL study).
SEL programming can have a positive economic impact
- One study even showed that the economic benefits of implementing SEL programming outweigh the costs (Belfield et al., 2015).
Social-emotional learning is a developmental process, which means it has both differences and constants across the course of a young person’s life. From birth through 12th grade (and all of life for that matter) we are developing our sense of self, our understanding of emotions, our ability to relate to others, solve problems, and persist. But at each age and stage of human development, our capacities, experiences, and relationships allow us to grow different skills within these critical SEL domains.
Consider how we develop our sense of self. The moment babies are born they begin learning about who they are. They kick an object, it moves, and they discover that they can have an effect on the world. But sense of self cannot really begin until children understand that they are separate from others, beginning around seven months. By ages two and three, children start defining likes and dislikes and expressing them to others. Emerging physical and cognitive abilities allow them to complete tasks all on their own. The pride of accomplishment that comes with this builds their confidence and sense of self.
As children begin school this sense of self grows. They start to learn who they are in relation to friends and their larger community . By adolescence their sense of self comes from defining themselves within these groups. They find things that make them unique (special skills, interests) while also discovering where they fit in. It’s an amazing process!
Within each SEL domain this trajectory exists, making it essential to promote different skills and experiences throughout each age and stage of development. Our messages grow along with children ensuring we help parents and caregivers meet kids where they are and help guide them to the next phase. We follow them as they develop:
- Sense of Self and Self Esteem
- Relationships, Family, and Community
- Emotional Understanding and Self-Regulation
- Executive Functioning and Independence
- Problem Solving, Conflict Resolution, and Resilience
Below are examples from our Core curriculum that show what SEL can look like as children grow.
Sense of Self
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