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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Social-emotional learning gains, but what is it?

Third-grader Madison Reid leads a discussion on listening at a Cleveland elementary school. Photo: Dustin Franz/Education Week

Social-emotional learning is catching on across the country, reports Victoria Clayton in The Atlantic. She defines SEL as “a systematic, evidence-based approach to teaching kids how to achieve goals, understand and manage emotions, build empathy, forge relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) “is working with 10 large districts —including Anchorage, Alaska;  Austin; Chicago; Cleveland; Nashville, Tennessee; and Oakland, California — and a growing number of smaller ones.”

At Austin High, Rudolph “Keeth” Matheny, an ex-college football coach, teaches Methods for Academic and Personal Success (MAPS) to ninth graders.

. . . half of the 90-minute MAPS class was devoted to unveiling students’ life maps—art projects that depict a future career goal and the steps necessary to get there. . . . The other half of the class time was devoted to defeating “victim-itis.” The students read “Invictus,” a poem that was significant to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. As they exited the classroom, they high-fived Matheny at the door and recited the last two lines of the poem: I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

“At Austin High, discipline referral rates have been cut in half, and graduation rates are at an all-time high,” writes Clayton.

Evidence of the benefits of SEL is mixed — possibly because programs differ in design and implementation.

A 2010 study of seven programs found no evidence of “improved student social and character development.” However, another look at the data using different statistical methods found positive results, Clayton writes.

In 2011, a meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in a well-implemented SEL program versus students who didn’t. And in 2015, the economist Clive Belfield and colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University published a study in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis that demonstrated a roughly $11 benefit for every $1 spent on a rigorous SEL program.

“Well-implemented” and “rigorous” are key words.

After a deadly school shooting at an alternative school in 2007, Cleveland embraced SEL, wrote Evie Blad in Ed Week in 2015.

(Kindergarteners) started the day by writing one-word descriptions of their emotions on the classroom’s whiteboard, completing the prompt, “Today I feel,” with words like “happy,” “love,” and “tired” in shaky penmanship. . . . Elementary teachers use a curriculum called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. High schools have adopted varied approaches, including using history and writing assignments to help students share what they value and care about.

Chicago schools are using SEL to teach students to calm down.

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