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June Jamboree of Meetings Helps Answer Three Critical Questions about SEL

June was a particularly hot month nationally for social and emotional learning. I had the good fortune to contribute to four separate conferences and meetings dedicated to this important work, traveling to Austin, Philadelphia, Princeton, and Nashville.

At each meeting, researchers joined practitioners to explore a wide array of issues in the field, particularly addressing three critical questions:

  1. Does social and emotional learning (SEL) still matter after elementary and middle school? 
  2. What’s the single most important element for effective SEL? 
  3. How do we ensure SEL meets the needs of diverse student demographics? 

The summer forums varied widely, from a gathering of a dozen participants in a Pennsylvania college to a two-day conference in Tennessee public high school. Here's a recap of key findings from my summer travels:

Austin: The “Equity Through SEL: Supporting Student Success in the Transition to Post-Secondary” conference was hosted by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. More than invited 300 attendees, representing secondary and postsecondary institutions, included researchers, instructors, and students.

For these participants, social and emotional learning wasn’t some kind of “nice-to-have” instructional supplement, it was a life-saver and a transformative opportunity-creator. The conference struck an emotional cord, more like a heartfelt gathering that at times felt more like a political rally than an academic conference.

Philadelphia: The founding board meeting for a newly launched organization, the Character Collaborative, was hosted by Swarthmore College. The meeting formalized and advanced the work of a group of college admission deans, high school counselors, educators, researchers, and SEL advocates to elevate the role of "character" in selective college and high school admissions. Their definition of character includes social emotional competencies like getting along with others, sustaining effort, and maintaining composure. A founding member of this organization, Brennan Barnard, wrote recently in Forbes magazine:

“We need to teach self-advocacy and self-awareness, but also compassion and connection. We must emphasize mindfulness, humility, kindness and humanity. Educators and business people talk about these as “soft skills”—social and emotional intelligence, character, communication and collaboration. However, increasing suicide rates suggest that these are the hardest skills to master and the most crucial to our collective well-being and survival.”
And accordingly, if we know the importance of these things to success in college and life, shouldn’t we count them more highly in the college admission equation?

Princeton: A special convening by the Salzburg Global Seminar and Educational Testing Service on the ETS New Jersey campus focused on a “Springboard for Success: How Social and Emotional Learning Helps Students in Getting to, Through and Beyond College.”

This select gathering of more than 80 SEL educators from the US, Canada, and Mexico featured panels exploring the importance of developing social emotional competencies at the college and graduate school level. For attendees, SEL was the difference-maker for student success. As Dr. Jennifer Baszile, dean of student success and career development at Trinity College, explained,

“I think that most, if not all, other challenges in education in the United States today are in some way or another informed by SEL.”

Nashville: The Alignment Nashville SEL conference is one of the largest national events dedicated to SEL, attracting passionate devotees who see SEL as a life calling that deeply inspires their work as educators.

In the conference kickoff, Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a Sandy Hook shooting victim, spoke of her belief that evidence points to SEL being a necessary component of our children’s education and a powerful solution to the issues we face in our society today.

The conference’s other keynote speaker, Zaretta Hammond, author of the book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” implored everyone in the packed auditorium to ensure that SEL be understood and implemented as a vehicle to bolster student success when engaged in “productive struggle,” and never an excuse to inappropriately substitute kindness for high expectations. Students need “warm demanders” who provide “both care and push.”

Over the course of these four conferences, we discovered great insights about social and emotional learning.

Does social and emotional learning still matter after elementary and middle school?

Most certainly! SEL is not just for breakfast (or early childhood education) anymore.

At three of the four June events, this question was affirmed in the central theme of the meeting. Academic preparation, researchers explained and demonstrated again and again, is necessary but not sufficient for secondary and postsecondary success; social and emotional competencies are essential.

What’s the single most important element for effective SEL?

While more challenging to capture in a word or two, the passionate voices addressing this topic focused on the centrality of positive, mutually respectful and trusting relationships. From CASEL’s Roberto Rivera at the Austin conference, to Zaretta Hammond in Nashville, ensuring you are working from a human-centered place of genuine connection, caring, and trust is at the core of this work.

How do we ensure SEL meets the needs of diverse student demographics?

To do this topic justice demands a discussion of a book-length or more, but we can say here that these meetings, particularly the ACT Center for Equity in Learning and the ETS conferences, treated this topic with great attention and seriousness.

In the Center for Equity in Learning meeting, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s Dena Simmons moved the audience with personal stories and asked educators to pay very close attention to the context of students’ lives, and to draw out the extraordinary strengths students in adverse circumstances have developed to use for success in school and life. At the ETS meeting, Dr. Carola Suarez-Orozco, a UCLA professor of human development and psychology, reminded educators that when developing student social and emotional skills:

“It’s a really complex and multidimensional construct on both individual and social levels. It’s the student and the spaces, and we have to figure out how to marry these.”
Here's my primary takeaway from the four events: While researchers, educators, funders, and policymakers ever-increasingly recognize the importance of SEL in secondary and post-secondary education, we are still very much in the early phases of discovering and establishing these best practices. Schools, districts, and universities can’t be expected to do this work on their own, especially beyond grade six or eight, without assistance and resources.

ACT is continuing to grow its team of researchers and experienced SEL practitioners engaged in this work, supporting educational organizations in social and emotional program planning, instruction, and assessment. As part of its mission to help people achieve education and workplace success, ACT is advancing awareness of the benefits of social and emotional learning, learn more.

Interested in how your higher ed institution can participate in new ACT social emotional learning initiatives for post-secondary students? Learn more.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.