Have you heard someone talk about the importance of soft skills, life skills, noncognitive skills, character education, or social and emotional learning? Have you been confused about what they meant by those terms and how those types of skills could be taught, anyway?
Yeah, us too.
Which is why we chose social and emotional learning as the theme of the International Education Funders Group meeting that we hosted in November. We wanted to learn more about the growing consensus that girls (and boys) need to master more than traditional subjects in order to succeed academically and thrive beyond school. We’re using this month’s Puggle to report back on what we heard at the meeting, clustered around five questions.
What is Social and Emotional Learning (“SEL”) and why should we care?
Ask five people to define social and emotional learning and you’ll likely get five definitions. Big picture, SEL embodies both a set of skills and competencies (things you learn to do) as well as a set of beliefs and attitudes that mediate whether or not you do those things. Competencies include cognitive skills (e.g. managing attention, controlling impulses, planning), emotional skills (e.g. behavior regulation, empathy), and social skills (e.g. perspective taking, social problem solving). Beliefs include identity (e.g. agency, purpose, self-esteem), values, and personality (e.g. optimism, openness).
To underscore how important the beliefs side of the equation is, one study found that how children believed they would do in school was a better predictor of their performance than how they performed the year before.
If that alone doesn’t persuade you that SEL is important, there are long term studies correlating SEL with life outcomes, intervention studies showing the impact of SEL on academic outcomes, and scientific proof that stress influences the brain and behavior. SEL is not distinct from academic learning, it is part of the learning process. Children need to be able to marshal their attention in order to be able to read, for example. Also important: improving SEL can help equalize academic performance. (This includes creating greater equity for girls, who, in many contexts where we work, are relatively disadvantaged.)
How do you teach SEL?
There are two components to supporting SEL. The first is establishing safe and caring learning environments. This is the foundation on which SEL is built. The second is instruction in SEL where teachers model the skills, explicitly teach them, and provide opportunities for practice and discussion.
If we know SEL is important and how it can be taught, what’s holding us back?
Remember all those terms we threw around at the start of this post? They exemplify general confusion around SEL. Evidence has not been shared in a way people can easily understand.
The proliferation of different words to describe common ideas also makes it hard to synthesize what we know. In an ideal world, existing research would inform what programs get implemented which would further add to the evidence base. It’s hard to make these connections without common language. It’s doubly hard when we lack good tools for measuring SEL, let alone common measurement tools.
Work on SEL is heavily U.S.-dominated and very few studies or frameworks offer information on cultural context (here is an exception by Matthew Jukes et al). As a result, we don’t know enough about which SEL competencies and context elements are universal (e.g. forming a strong relationship with at least one adult) or not. We also don’t know what additional competencies might be needed in existing frameworks to make them more culturally relevant (e.g. perhaps self-awareness should be expanded to include communal values and cultural identity and maybe self-regulation needs to include coping with discrimination). And there hasn’t been enough thinking about what skills should be prioritized in low-resource settings.
Where could we start?
First, it would help to develop a shared understanding of what skills and competencies we are talking about. The Harvard Taxonomy project is compiling different frameworks used to describe SEL and mapping out what skills they encompass and how they are defined. The goal is to understand what terms people are using, how they relate to terms other people are using, and where skills overlap and cluster. Echidna Giving has funded Harvard to include more frameworks from low-income countries in their Taxonomy—if you have suggestions of what they should include or who they should be talking to, please get in touch with us.
Second, we could promote more field-level measurement of SEL. Here, too, we have funded initial research in India and East Africa to set the stage for co-creating measurement tools with implementing organizations, so get in touch if you would like to learn more.
Third, consider starting with the adults! It’s easy to jump straight to the children, but adults are critical for reaching them. Children emulate the behavior that adults model. Reach out to adults at moments when they are hungry for SEL tools and strategies. For example, teachers need strategies to manage stress. New parents need tools to manage…being parents.
Lastly, in our effort to solidify a scientific understanding of SEL we may be overlooking long-standing practices in communities that support SEL but have never been called “SEL.” Communities everywhere have strategies for building relationships, developing personal identity, solving social problems. It may be a matter of finding and leaning into these existing strengths—including those that come from religious institutions who have been thinking about SEL for millenia. Where these practices have been stripped from the classroom, find a bridge into schools. Lean into the language that communities are already using (even in the U.S. parents think SEL is important but use different terms), not research language.
What questions remain?
Well, plenty! But we’ll focus on three that were especially provocative for us:
- Does what we know about SEL imply a fundamental shift in what we expect schools to deliver? Is the evidence strong enough to suggest a major reorientation of what school systems do?
- What’s the right balance between measurement that is contextually specific and that which is broadly applied?
- How should we adapt strategies to different cultures and contexts? How can they be implemented in low-resource environments?
We welcome your thoughts on these issues and reflections from others who attended.