What Is Social-Emotional Learning Anyway…and Why Does It Matter?

By Dr. Sarah Sumwalt, Director of Social and Emotional Learning at The Langley School

What’s all the buzz about SEL?

The term social-emotional learning (SEL) has become ubiquitous in the field of education. SEL also dominates the mainstream media, with articles peppering news sources about the role of SEL in the classroom. Just last week, the D.C. Schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, argued that students need to feel “loved, challenged, and prepared” and shared his vision for bringing an increased focus on social-emotional learning into the District’s classrooms.

Despite the intense current interest in the topic, the term social-emotional learning is not new. In fact, it has been a widely used term since the late 1990s. Definitions of the term typically include references to intrapersonal (e.g., self-awareness and self-management) and interpersonal (e.g., social awareness and relationship skills) competence. However, there is not one agreed upon definition and many differ on exactly what skills SEL entails.

A recently published NPR article perhaps captures this issue best in the title: “Social and Emotional Skills: Everybody Loves Them, But Still Can’t Define Them.” SEL has been referred to as “soft skills,” “non-academic skills,” “non-cognitive skills,” and “life skills.” More recently, terms such as “grit” and “growth mindset” have also caught on. Other terms such as emotions, empathy, relationships, and responsible decisions are frequently mentioned in discussions of SEL. Although all of these skills and constructs are clearly important, their inclusion in formal definitions results in a lack of clarity regarding the overarching meaning of what SEL really is and why it’s so important for success.

So, how do we make sense of what SEL really is?

At the Institute of Social and Emotional Learning’s recent conference, one of the speakers read the following quote: “SEL is not a detour from academics. Rather, it is the on-ramp.” This got me thinking…perhaps what definitions have previously lacked is clarity around the destination or the resulting outcome that we are working toward by teaching social and emotional skills in school. According to developmental research, resilience and adaptability are at the core of how we cope successfully with everything life throws us. Furthermore, authenticity, our ability to express our true internal experience, is essential to our happiness with ourselves and with others. I believe it is these constructs that truly illustrate the essence of SEL.

We need to intentionally teach, through explicit lessons and discussions and through studies of literature and history, skills and strategies that help our children understand their own and other’s internal experiences, appreciate differences, make healthy decisions, and persevere so that they can be resilient, adaptable, and authentic adults.This, I believe, is the heart of SEL. -Dr. Sarah Sumwalt

At The Langley School, we also strongly believe that focusing on SEL work actually furthers and propels academic success, not the other way around. This is why we are deeply committed to the work, as evident in our strategic plan.

Why is SEL so important in 2017?

There are a number of concerning societal trends that call attention to the importance of this work for our current children. First, there is a striking trend in the workforce that is the result of automation. As machines and computers become more sophisticated and efficient at tasks, the automation of clerical, engineering, and factory jobs has grown exponentially. As a result, job growth across many fields has decreased.

A recent Washington Post article titled “This Silicon Valley Start-Up Wants to Replace Lawyers with Robots” quoted an estimate that 35% of all professional tasks can be automated. There was also mention that JP Morgan recruited developers to build software to accomplish in seconds what it would have taken lawyers 360,000 hours to do. In contrast, jobs that require social skills, teamwork, and emotional intelligence (skills that can’t be automated) are on the rise.

In the New York Times article, “Why What You Learned in Preschool Is Crucial at Work,” the author states, “…skills like cooperation, empathy, and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work. Occupations that require strong social skills have grown much more than others since 1980, according to new research. And the only occupations that have shown consistent wage growth since 2000 require both cognitive and social skills.”

Second, there are striking and worrisome trends with our current youth. In her newly published book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” Jean Twenge argues that iGen’ers (individuals born between 1995 and 2012 almost all of our elementary and middle school students!) are reporting lower levels of satisfaction with their lives and themselves. They also report feeling more lonely; in fact, Twenge notes that 31% more students in grades 8 and 10 reported feeling lonely in 2015 than in 2011.

The Langley SchoolFurthermore, iGen’ers may be emotionally unprepared for dealing with such emotional complexity. For example, with increased time on social media, iGen’ers are not practicing their in-person social skills as much as other generations did. Twenge states, “Life’s social decisions are still made primarily in person, and an iGen gets less experience with such situations. In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation – but not the right facial expression.”

Now, what should we do about it?

I have always deeply believed in the mission to infuse SEL into the fabric of schools. And, as described above, now is a more important time than ever. The good news is that there is a huge push to integrate SEL into schools, particularly with comprehensive programs such as the RULER program out of Yale, with the goal of creating an emotionally healthy school climate that then funnels down into classroom lessons and curricular components.

Source: Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

At The Langley School, we have not only begun to infuse the RULER program into our curriculum, but I have also been given the exciting opportunity to create a comprehensive program for Langley that integrates skills across three domains central to development, with the goal of producing graduates who are resilient, adaptable, and authentic. These domains are: Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Responsiveness, and Health and Wellness. This type of intentional work, that infiltrates the curriculum and the school climate, is essential in order to help our children develop resilience, adaptability, authenticity, and the confidence to go forth into the world. I am excited to develop the program in collaboration with the faculty and parent community at a time when this type of work is very much needed.

Current Langley parents, please join me on Wednesday, October 11 at the first PALS meeting and speaker series of the year to continue this discussion and learn more about the unique SEL work that we will be living and experiencing. Prospective parents, we hope you will join our upcoming webinar, also on October 11. Register today to learn more about Langley and this exciting work!

Dr. Sarah Sumwalt is Langley’s newly hired director of social and emotional learning. Dr. Sumwalt is a clinical psychologist who previously spent four years in private practice. She has long been dedicated to SEL work and the ways in which we can best support children’s social and emotional development in the academic setting. Read Dr. Sumwalt’s bio

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