Blog Series
Nov 08, 2021

Communicating the “Learning” in Social-Emotional Learning

Sheldon Berman and Linda Darling-Hammond
Blog Series: Educating the Whole Child

The past 18 to 20 months have presented educators with challenges they never expected. Remote learning, hybrid learning, quarantine, social distancing—even school districts’ daily vocabulary experienced an upheaval. Meanwhile, the world health crisis appeared to exacerbate the long-simmering national epidemic of negative interpersonal communications and interactions, exposing students to an onslaught of disinformation and inappropriate adult behavior—seemingly replayed on an endless and angry loop courtesy of social media. Adding to these tensions, the dissension over how to manage and perhaps conquer COVID-19 devolved into a pitched battle between political camps that ricocheted through state legislatures and affected school districts’ daily operations.

To mitigate these disruptions to the educational process and to help students acquire and practice the skills they will need to be successful in all phases of their lives, many schools turned to or deepened the application of social-emotional learning (SEL). However, this strategy led to another set of challenges about how best to communicate the meaning and importance of SEL to parents in the midst of this divisive environment.

To explore this issue, the Fordham Institute recently completed a study of parent perceptions of social-emotional learning entitled “How to Sell SEL: Parents and the Politics of Social-Emotional Learning.” The study not only focused on overall parent perceptions, but also explored the differences in those perceptions based on political party affiliation (Republican vs. Democrat). The study’s analysis revealed important nuances in parents’ understandings and misunderstandings of the meaning and application of SEL.

In a time of stark divisions along the political spectrum, it is heartening to note the report’s major finding that nearly all parents, regardless of political persuasion, want their children to acquire social-emotional skills and believe that schools have a role to play in providing that instruction. At the same time, the report gives those of us working in the field of education both reason and opportunity to reflect on how we can more effectively communicate about SEL so that our communication deepens parents’ understanding of and commitment to the integral nature of SEL in student success.

In addition to overall support for social-emotional skills, the study found that parents within both political parties generally affirm the importance of a wide range of specific social-emotional skills, such as goal setting; navigating social situations; empathizing with others; standing up for people of different backgrounds; responding ethically; and understanding, expressing, and controlling emotions. There is overwhelming agreement among all parents that students’ social and emotional needs must be addressed for them to “reach their full academic potential.” In fact, the study concluded that “when SEL-related programs are described without jargon, support soars on both sides of the aisle.” The study’s authors suggest that proponents of SEL might garner support from more parents by focusing on the specific skills themselves and avoiding jargon.

What the Fordham study tells us about communication and miscommunication is that we should not frame SEL and academics as an either/or choice and that we need to help parents understand the inextricable connection between the two.

More specifically, the study found that parents who identify themselves as Republican are not supportive of the term “social-emotional learning,” with most preferring terms such as “life skills” or, to a lesser extent, “positive youth development.” Although social-emotional skills are clearly skills that promote success in school, career, and life, in many communities the term “life skills” refers to either programs for students with special needs or programs that track students into lower-level courses. Thus, the designation “life skills” would not be appropriate for providing the full meaning behind the social-emotional skills that are encompassed in schools’ SEL programming. Our best option when it comes to terminology is to clarify the meaning of SEL through concrete examples of the specific kinds of skills students are focused on developing.

According to the study’s findings, an integrated approach to teaching social-emotional skills offers the greatest appeal to parents in both parties. An integrated approach includes indirect instruction such as teaching collaboration through cooperative groupwork, community service, teachers as role models, and referring to SEL concepts as they arise in the content curriculum. It blends indirect instruction with direct instruction, such as following a SEL curriculum or program. However, responses strongly diverged by political orientation when the study framed SEL as a trade-off with academics, implying that to gain one you must give up the other.

The study reveals serious parental misconceptions about the nature of academic and social-emotional learning itself and the notion that there has to be a trade-off between the two components. This false dichotomy constitutes a significant concern. In fact, simply implying that there is some level of trade-off between academics and SEL perpetuates those very misconceptions. We know from the science of learning that academic learning is integrally tied to both the social and emotional climate of the classroom and the social and emotional skills of students. When students feel safe to take learning risks and make mistakes, when their cultural identity is affirmed in the classroom, and when they are able to effectively collaborate with others in the learning process, they are better equipped to learn academic content more deeply. All cognitive learning has myriad social and emotional facets.

The National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development brought together more than 30 researchers in areas of cognitive, social, and emotional development. They reached a consensus that “the major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior. All are central to learning. Strengths or weaknesses in one area foster or impede development in others; each carries aspects of the other.” To set up a forced choice between cognitive and social-emotional learning misleads people into thinking they have to adopt one and ignore the other.

Every classroom not only provides content instruction but also possesses a culture and a climate that either facilitate or undermine learning. For example, we know that teacher language is critically important and deeply influences students’ ability to learn. Sarcasm, judgmental comments, labeling, accusatory language, threats and warnings, and even praise that is used to control can make a deep impression on students, causing them to withdraw trust and be reluctant to risk. At the same time, when teachers teach social-emotional skills like listening, empathy, cooperation, respectful discourse, and focus, either directly through explicit instruction or indirectly through in-context skill development, students are better able to work together, build on each other’s thinking, and learn more deeply. In fact, providing instruction in social-emotional skills expedites cognitive development by means of the safety and support students experience and the confidence they develop in taking risks in the classroom.

Setting up a trade-off between academic learning and social-emotional development establishes a false dichotomy and promotes misunderstanding of the science of learning itself. It also leaves the impression that social skills development is an entirely separate subject, taught only in units that take time away from academic content. We know that students learn not only from the teacher but also from their engagement with peers. Whenever teachers use collaborative learning strategies, organize students into small groups, or promote dialogue among students, their efforts present opportunities for social and emotional learning as students master the skills necessary for effective collaboration.

Setting up a trade-off between academic learning and social-emotional development establishes a false dichotomy and promotes misunderstanding of the science of learning itself.

The Fordham study indicated that Democratic parents are more comfortable than Republican parents with the term “social-emotional learning.” In part, this difference reflects the polarization emerging around many issues in what has been posed as a culture war. It is accentuated when SEL is conceived of as a separate course of study, raising the specter of imposing particular cultural norms that counter those being taught in the home. SEL is not political, nor is it a separate subject; rather, it is an approach to education that integrates learning so that students are best able to be successful.

What the Fordham study tells us about communication and miscommunication is that we should not frame SEL and academics as an either/or choice and that we need to help parents understand the inextricable connection between the two. We have been effective in conveying that SEL helps young people develop the skills to succeed in school and life, enables educators to create safe and inclusive learning environments, and promotes the overall well-being of young people. Our next step is to help parents understand the different ways in which schools approach SEL instruction through a combination of direct instruction, integration into academics, creation of identity-safe communities within classrooms and schools, and provision of service-learning opportunities that deepen social and cognitive skill development. None of these strategies takes time away from academic learning; rather, they expedite and deepen academic learning. In addition, we need to help parents understand that all learning is social and emotional and that learning is most effective when we consciously plan how best to approach the cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of learning so that they have the greatest positive impact on student performance. These actions need to be our next steps in order to build upon the positive parent response the survey found to students’ acquisition of social-emotional skills and parents’ support for the role of schools in teaching these skills.