In Search of Better Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning.

The popular teaching strategy aims to equip students with the social and emotional skills to better engage in classwork, resolve conflicts ahead of disciplinary action, and prepare for life after graduation. Psychologists and education experts posit that students with strong social-emotional skills tend to succeed more and drop out less.

The approach, which has been gaining steam in schools in recent years, took on additional importance late last year when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. More than just a popular teaching method, many educators believe that social-emotional learning could evolve into a potentially strong measure of school and student success under the new law.

Betting on social-emotional skills
School leaders in the Washoe County School District in Reno have placed their bets on a social-emotional learning strategy to help boost graduation rates 15 points by 2020, according to a story in Education Week.

As part of its strategy, the district completely overhauled its discipline policy, emphasizing in-class conflict resolution as opposed to disciplinary action, such as detention. School leaders also put a focus on student-staff interactions and introduced core social-emotional skills into classroom instruction.

So far, the approach shows promise. Students and staff have reported anecdotal improvements, and the district’s graduation-rate hit a record-high in 2015. Despite this progress, though, educators have yet to establish a direct link to student success and social-emotional learning. But they would like to get there.

Measuring success
As Ben Hayes, Washoe County’s Chief Accountability Officer, told Ed Week: “If we could come up with good measures, then maybe we could measure the mediating effect of social-emotional learning competencies on this risk [of not completing high school]. That became the kind of learning goal, and from there we found out very quickly that we need to have better measures.”

The district started by posing questions to students about their mastery of social-emotional skills through a school climate survey. But there was a problem: Most students claimed mastery of most skills. That could only mean one of two things: Either most students were adept at social-emotional skills (unlikely), or they were not properly engaging with the survey.

For a clearer picture, school leaders opted to engage students directly through focus groups.

From these discussions, the district developed a list of 150 metrics in five areas: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making.

The district then identified 17 key “anchor items” that it correlated with strong academic and behavioral performance. These items will be incorporated into future surveys to help school leaders develop a clearer picture of the impact of social-emotional learning on student performance.

The jury’s still out
In Washoe, school leaders admit that their social-emotional framework remains a work in progress. While they’ve opted not to use social-emotional learning as an accountability measure this year, they haven’t ruled out that possibility down the road.

Across the country, schools have made note of Washoe’s work, and many are beginning to roll out social-emotional strategies with new state and federal accountability measures in mind.

Have you developed a strategy to integrate social-emotional skills into your curricula? What plans to do you have to measure success? Tell us in the comments.

Want to learn more about how to create a good survey instrument for your district? Watch our free webinar, “Why Most Schools Surveys Suck—And Yours Don’t Have To.”

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