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Understanding Why Social Emotional Learning is Important for Schools

August 4th, 2016

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For many years, the focus within classrooms has been centered on assessments. How students were performing on state exams were supposed to tell the story of student achievement—or at least, most of the story.

However, the number of research studies has increased on this topic and the evidence is overwhelming—social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential for student success.

Studies have shown that many risky behaviors such as drug use, bullying, and absenteeism are often linked to poor social and emotional skills. What’s more, SEL has been linked to actual performance within the classroom and assessments.

According to Roger P. Weissberg, the editor of Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, citing Durlak et al.: “SEL not only improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, but it also increases prosocial behaviors and reduces depression and stress among students.”

With new insights and ongoing research, schools are now upping their efforts to properly develop and assess a teaching methodology that will account for social-emotional learning concepts and skill sets.

When Did SEL Become a Priority?

In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to establish greater accountability among educators for student achievement. Its plan was to measure academic performance through state standards and assessments, with a special focus on boosting performance of certain subgroups such as English Language Learners (ELL) and socio-economically disadvantaged students.

Schools were required to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which would result in rewarding schools that did well, and providing sanctions for schools that didn’t. Sanctions included possible student transfers and potential loss of federal Title I money.

What happened over the next decade and a half was a gradual realization of the limitations surrounding NCLB. Complaints surfaced about its narrowed focus on testing, and it failed to compensate for other social factors like behavior and attendance.

In 2013, several California school districts received waivers from penalties under NCLB law. It freed districts from key sanctions and provided additional funding for school improvement. The California Office to Reform Education (CORE) proposed reducing the number of students within a subgroup from 100 or more to 20 or more, which would account for another 150,000 students that were left unrepresented in the CORE districts under NCLB.

Under CORE, students would be measured not only by state assessments but a more holistic view of SEL and engagement:

  • 60% – Scores on state exams, HS graduation rates
  • 20% – Parent and teacher surveys (perception data)
  • 20% – SEL factors like chronic absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions

These changes have resulted in at least two critical outcomes. There is now greater insight on the academics of specific sub-groups, which has spawned conversations around issues of disproportionality (especially amongst Black and Latino students). Also, new initiatives are being introduced to teach soft skills as part of educating the whole child.

What is the Goal of SEL?

SEL-5-Skills

The goal of SEL is to promote and improve students’ attitudes and beliefs about themselves, their relationships with others, and their education.

This could mean various types of skills related to emotional intelligence. Many researchers, however, generally agree on five specific subsets of core competencies:

  • Self-awareness – To process one’s own thoughts and feelings, and learn how to express them to others
  • Self-management – To control one’s own emotions and behaviors in different contexts and environments
  • Social awareness – To empathize and understand people from various backgrounds or cultures, as well as internalize social norms of behavior
  • Relationship skills – To build and maintain meaningful relationships with others by active and healthy communication
  • Responsible decision making – To make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions

These sets of competencies are related to one another in various degrees and involve multiple cognitive and behavioral skills. All of these skills can and must be developed within the school and home environments.

How Should We Approach SEL?

Understanding the various elements and standards that constitute SEL is just the first step in the process. The next step is to determine how to build a curriculum that can account for SEL skills within the classroom.

That’s something we’ll dive into in future posts. For now, we must remember to keep a few points in mind when approaching SEL data for student success.

1. Be aware of student conditions – First, we need to understand that every student comes into the classroom with various outside factors that could affect their learning ability. If students are dealing with issues like family dysfunction or peer pressure, they won’t be as prepared or focused on learning. Come up with ways to identify those problems and address them early on.

2. Understand student dispositions – We need to apply our efforts in figuring out a student’s beliefs towards education. How willing are they to learn? What are their motivations for school? What things actually support, enhance or reinforce their beliefs about education? Addressing their purpose within the classroom or helping define their “why” is crucial in getting students to participate as much as they can in their own education.

3. Educate the whole child – As we take those two points into consideration, we’ll be more equipped to educate the whole child. A resource that could be helpful in this process is an educational intelligence platform. Having a system that will measure, track and analyze data in regards to student behavior and performance will allow educators to keep a pulse on student progress and identify any red flags along the way.

This approach towards the overall health of a child and their mindset to embrace learning is critical. When educators approach SEL from a perspective of equity and wanting to insure that conditions of a school are appropriate for healthy learning, students will be given the best chance to succeed in their education and in life.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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