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Five Reasons to Celebrate Social and Emotional Learning on #SELday

By: Jonathan Martin, program director, SEL Services

Today is International SEL Day! At ACT, we’re celebrating that fast-rising demand for social and emotional learning is coming from the field — from the students, parents, teachers, and administrators who are carrying out this learning and teaching every day.

We know this from listening to them, as I regularly do when providing professional services for educators in rural, urban, and suburban districts across the United States. In most cases, what I’m hearing and seeing is backed up by survey data. These educators are eager for resources and supports for providing students with instruction and opportunities to practice and improve skills such as persisting in the face of difficulty, setting ambitious short- and long-term goals, getting along with others, and remaining calm when encountering setbacks.

They know — and they tell me — that teaching and learning these skills isn’t a replacement or substitute for academic learning; rather, this is skill-building to support academic success as well as career and college readiness.

Here are five reasons to celebrate supporting students in the development of social and emotional skills.

  1. Students are asking for it. In one school district with which we work closely, a middle school student leadership group petitioned administrators for more support for students’ emotional well-being and social skill development, arguing that pandemic disruptions had greatly hurt their own growth and they needed these supports. The students designed their own surveys for classmates, finding that they wanted to learn skills for planning for their future, managing anxiety, and boosting their resilience.

    At an elementary school in the same district, students are reporting in their weekly closed-circuit television news-show about how much they appreciate that they are learning to take initiative, make new friends, and manage stress.

  2. Teachers are asking for it for their students. I work with educators in rural, urban, and suburban districts, and in recent years the plea has become more urgent. Teachers say they have to support their students holistically; they can’t teach math and reading if they are aren’t also teaching how to start and finish schoolwork in ways that students feel good about. These skills go hand in hand with the work of schooling, they tell me, and we need more resources to do this well.

    This dovetails with results from the ACT National Curriculum Survey from 2020, where we surveyed  of thousands of educators and more than four-fifths of respondents said it is important to teach students skills such as sustaining effort, getting along with others, and maintaining composure.

  3. Teachers are asking for it for themselves. Teachers regularly tell me that they appreciate opportunities to better teach these skills because they want to use this learning to strengthen their own skill set. Today’s teachers live and work in very challenging and complex circumstances, and they are asking for more support in developing skills such as agency (getting things done), emotional stability under pressure, and effective collaboration with colleagues.

  4. District leaders are asking for it. At ACT, we consistently see growing demand from district leaders for these kinds of supports, and there is abundant evidence that these leaders view supporting the emotional well-being and social skill development of their students and staff as a top priority. A recent RAND Corporation report of district leaders’ concerns found that the top three were the mental health of their students (90%), of their teachers (87%), and of their principals (84%). Another analysis by Georgetown University think tank FutureEd found that about one-third of local education agencies indicated they will use their federal COVID-19 relief money on these kind of programs, with an average per-student spend of nearly $100.

  5. Parents are asking for it. The teachers with whom we work tell us that parents regularly express sincere and heartfelt appreciation for their children’s opportunities to learn how better to manage their feelings, set and strive for goals, and deal with difficult social dynamics. National surveys of parents bear this out; in one large-scale, demographically representative survey, more than four-fifths of parents agreed that schools should "teach students to set goals and work toward them (91%) and understand, express, and control their emotions (82%)."
We all can appreciate that change is best accomplished when it is sought out by those for whom the change is intended, and not imposed against their wishes. In the case of supporting students and educators alike in developing and practicing the critical skills needed for success and well-being each and every day, these are changes that we can be confident are in demand in today’s schools. And that is something to celebrate!