A Brief Overview
- Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process through which children and adults effectively manage emotions, reach toward goals, experience empathy, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
- In school, all students participate in SEL as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Specific SEL instruction can also be part of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
- Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members.
- A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status.
- A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”
A child’s ability to understand, communicate, and manage emotions is critical to learning. So are skills that enable a child to socialize, self-motivate, empathize, and work collaboratively. Schools call this area of education Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
SEL is not just for children. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Students with disabilities may qualify for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in social and/or emotional areas of learning as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Eligibility for SDI is determined through evaluation, and schools use various instruments to assess whether a student has a disability affecting social or emotional skills to an extent that education is significantly impacted. If so, the student’s IEP will support learning in those social/emotional areas, and goal-monitoring will track skill growth.
Students with IEPs are not the only ones who receive SEL instruction, however. Schools may use curricula to promote emotional understanding, social stories, mindfulness programs, communication circles or other strategies as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a framework for improving school-wide social, emotional, and cultural climate. Schools that adopt an MTSS framework deliver SEL to all students (Tier 1) and generally offer Tier 2 and Tier 3 programming to targeted groups or individual students.
Parenting Tip: Ask whether your school uses an MTSS framework
Family caregivers can ask school staff and administrators whether the district operates within an MTSS framework.
- If the answer is no, ask how school climate is addressed and how SEL is integrated into school-wide programming.
- If the answer is yes, ask what SEL instruction looks like in the general education classroom (Tier 1) and how specialized lessons are provided to students with higher levels of need (Tiers 2-3). Note that a student who does not qualify for an IEP could demonstrate the need for social/emotional instruction beyond what is provided to most students. Family caregivers can ask for detail about how the school’s MTSS system supports any specific student.
State adopts six SEL standards
Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to all public and non-public educational agencies in the state, provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members. Included is a link to the official letter in which State Superintendent Chris Reykdal adopted the standards, and a collection of resources to support SEL implementation and to further understanding about how families and communities can participate.
A primary document is the 24-page Social Emotional Learning Standards, Benchmarks, and Indicators, which defines the six SEL learning standards and various benchmarks under each. An extensive chart offers practical guidance for assessing each standard for students in Early Elementary, Late Elementary, Middle School, and High School/Adult. The SEL learning standards include:
- SELF-AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to identify their emotions, personal assets, areas for growth, and potential external resources and supports.
- SELF-MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
- SELF-EFFICACY – Individuals have the ability to motivate themselves, persevere, and see themselves as capable.
- SOCIAL AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
- SOCIAL MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to make safe and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions.
- SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to consider others and show a desire to contribute to the well-being of the school and community.
Developmental milestones are charted with a variety of statements that might demonstrate the skill or disposition within an age range.
- For example, a late elementary age student might show self-awareness this way: “I can identify and describe physical symptoms and thoughts related to my emotions and feelings (e.g., hot, shoulders tight).”
- A middle-school student might demonstrate self-efficacy this way: “I can identify specific human and civil rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled and can understand how to advocate for myself in healthy ways.”
Tip for Parents: Promote SEL at home
Included on the SEL website page is a list of learning activities for families and educators. The eight-page guide includes links to videos, websites, and ready-to-use resources to encourage positive behavior support and helpful communication at home and at school. Resources are sorted by age and marked to indicate whether they are best suited for family caregivers, teachers, or both.
- For example, parents of children K-5 might want to click on SEL Games to Play With Your Child to find a resource from Understood.org. One game, Starfish and Tornadoes, helps kids notice how much energy they are feeling inside and when they might need to use their calming skills or ask for help from a trusted adult.
- A suggestion for grades 5-12 is to Practice Loving-Kindness for Someone you Care About. That exercise from Greater Good in Education provides adaptations for students with disabilities and suggests ways to make the project culturally responsive.
Another document accessible through OSPI’s website is a three-page guide for parents and families, which includes resource linkages to free online training, parenting cue cards with quick answers to typical concerns, and access to other websites with tools and advice specific for various stages of child development. Also included are tips to promote SEL at home by encouraging a child to:
- Identify and name their emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
- Identify positive and negative consequences of actions.
- Demonstrate the ability to follow routines and generate ideas to solve problems.
- Create a goal and track progress toward achieving that goal.
- Identify feelings expressed by others.
- Identify ways that people and groups are similar and different.
- Demonstrate attentive listening skills without distraction.
- Identify and take steps to resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.
- Demonstrate a sense of community responsibility
SEL guidance supports equity and inclusion
- Principles listed throughout the state SEL guidance include:
- Equity: Each child receives what he or she needs to develop his or her full potential.
- Cultural responsiveness: Culture is viewed as a resource for learning, not a barrier.
- Universal design: Learning differences are planned for and accommodated.
- Trauma-informed: Knowledge of the effects of trauma is integrated into policy and practice.
State guidance that describes the SEL standards and benchmarks includes this statement: “Social emotional learning (SEL) happens over the course of a day, a lifetime, and in every setting in which students and adults spend their time.… Effectively supporting social emotional development in schools requires collaboration among families and communities. It also involves building adult capacity to support a school climate and culture that recognizes, respects, and supports differences in abilities, experiences, and ethnic and cultural differences, and celebrates diversity.”
A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status. “A white, middle-class model of self that values independence dominates schools,” the brief states. “Students of color and students in low-income communities often experience ‘cultural mismatch’ in education settings that expect forms of expression and participation not aligned with their culture.
“Without explicit attention to equity and cultural diversity, prevalent SEL frameworks, models, and curricula may not adequately reflect the diverse worldviews of students and families.”
Parenting Tip: Attend your local school board meeting to influence decisions
The state’s SEL implementation guide is intended for local districts to use in developing their own school- or community-specific plan to meet the needs of all learners. Because Washington is a local control state, each district is responsible for policy development.
Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.
HB 2816 promotes positive school climate
A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”
The model policy and procedures for its implementation includes specific elements to “recognize the important role that students’ families play in collaborating with the school and school district in creating, maintaining, and nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.” In addition, districts “must provide information to the parents and guardians of enrolled students regarding students’ rights to a free public education, regardless of immigration status or religious beliefs; and school districts must provide meaningful access to this information for families with limited English proficiency.”
In accordance with HB 2816, the WSSDA website will post the model policy and procedure by March 1, 2021. School districts are responsible to incorporate the guidance by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year: “School districts may periodically review policies and procedures for consistency with updated versions of the model policy for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”
SEL is linked to research about Adverse Childhood Experiences
A national movement to incorporate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is informed by knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first report about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Vincent Felitti, then the CDC’s chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.
The data inspired researchers and educators to seek new ways to help children cope so they can manage themselves at school—and in life. A variety of new evidence-based practices were developed to support childhood resiliency. The National Research Council issued this statement in 2012: “There is broad agreement that today’s schools must offer more than academic instruction to prepare students for life and work.”
The 2015 Washington State Legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and Senate Bill 6620 in 2016 authorized development of a free online training module in SEL for school staff. The bill states that, “In order to foster a school climate that promotes safety and security, school district staff should receive proper training in developing students’ social and emotional skills.” Development of the state SEL Standards furthers that work.
Parenting tip: Work on your own SEL skills
Family caregivers play an important role in fostering SEL by working on their own self-regulation skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides a wide array of resources, including some related to stressors from COVID-19. “We need to pay close attention to our own social emotional needs in order to be the community of adults who best serve our young people,” CASEL advises. “Practice continued self-care strategies, including eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, and finding time to take breaks.” CASEL provides a checklist to reframe your thinking, including ideas about “all-or-nothing” or overgeneralization, for example.
PAVE provides a series of short mindfulness videos for all ages and abilities and offers additional mindfulness and parenting ideas in an article, Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.
Parents are a child’s primary SEL teachers
Family caregivers can help foster SEL skills by collaborating with the school. OSPI’s guidance includes this statement: “Parents and families are a child’s first teachers of SEL. As children grow, parents and families continue to support the social emotional lives of their children in the home.”
Here are a few questions parents might ask school staff to collaborate on SEL skill development:
- How are you helping my child learn from mistakes?
- If behavior is keeping my child from learning, what skill is lacking?
- What is a best-practice strategy for teaching the skill that my child needs to learn?
- Do you have a tool for understanding and regulating emotions that we can use at home also?
- How is my child learning to “name and tame” emotions? (Dan Siegel, neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, suggests that recognizing and naming a feeling gives a person power to regulate the emotion.)
- What positive reinforcement is being provided when my child demonstrates a new skill? How are those positive reinforcers tracked through data collection?
- What is the plan to help my child calm down when dysregulation makes problem-solving inaccessible?
- Would a Functional Behavior Assessment help us understand what my child is trying to communicate through this unexpected behavior?
- Can we collaborate to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan so that we are using the same cues and language to support expected behavior?
- What adult at the school is a “champion” for my child? (Dr. Bruce Perry, whose research supports trauma-informed initiatives, says, “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”)