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As U.S. public schools become increasingly diverse racially, culturally and economically, they are turning to social emotional programs to better serve the different ways in which students interact with and invest in schooling and their education. Social emotional learning (SEL) creates learning environments that are positive, safe and productive for learning, supporting students in school, career and life success. Jeffrey Rosen, an education researcher who studies SEL in schools, says that schools could realize significant benefits by focusing at least some of their efforts on improving SEL. Research shows that SEL improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points and for every dollar spent on SEL programming, the return on investment is eleven dollars in long-term benefits to students.  Rosen observed “SEL skills have been shown to be equally, if not more important than cognitive ability in determining outcomes like achievement and earnings,” and added that he would counsel schools to put equal, if not more focus, on developing students’ SEL skills compared to the time spent on achievement testing and improving scores.  

Rosen is an Education Research Scientist in the Center for Evaluation and Study of Educational Equity at RTI International. In our interview, he spoke about what researchers are learning about SEL and how the knowledge can be applied in schools as a path to student learning and success.

What kind of research projects have you been working on lately?

Over the past few years, I worked on a project with RTI colleague Beth Glennie and teacher researchers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) on a report of how highly effective teachers implement SEL in classrooms. A few key findings include the importance of positive, caring relationships with students, and the need for teachers to model effective social emotional practices themselves. We found they want professional development specific to assessing students’ SEL needs and how to develop them as well. I’m also working on projects funded by the Institute for Education Sciences (U.S. Department of Education) to study a set of SEL interventions. One is a district-wide program in Broward County, Florida focused on developing personal relationships between school staff and students. They do a variety of things like goal-setting and academic check-ins with the theory that being connected to a responsible adult at school helps students to stay connected and invested in their education. Colleagues from Broward County presented at an RTI SEL Summit  with North Carolina schools to share what they were doing.

What do you think are the most important findings in SEL research to share with schools?

For schools, I think a few points are important. First off, although I don’t think in today’s world schools need convincing of this, I’d tell schools that SEL competencies DO matter. Joseph Durlak and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis in 2011 for CASEL to evaluate the global impact of SEL programming. He found that there’s a measurable, tangible, long lasting impact of SEL training on academic and non-academic outcomes. That’s important to know. Second, many SEL skills are not fixed, which means they can be impacted in some way, and schools and staff have a role to play in influencing them. Third, there’s a real controversy in the field about how we use SEL assessments, and whether they should be part of accountability systems, for high stakes purposes. The Core Districts in California—a consortium of the 8 largest districts in the state—are currently exploring this question along with folks from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). They’re piloting the building of SEL assessments into accountability, focusing on a core set of SEL competencies. And fourth, although it’s popular to say “we focus on SEL” at a school, it’s hard to know what that means. There are so many SEL competencies—several hundred in fact—and I don’t think we yet know how to narrow which skills schools should focus in on, e.g., is math or science self-efficacy most important? Motivation? Effort? 

Where do you think the field should turn its attention regarding SEL in schools?

The field right now is almost skill-specific, so where we need to go depends on which skill or skills we’re focused on. Maybe for now, researchers could do a better job in communicating with schools which SEL skills are most important to attend to. We’ve done a pretty good job of that, showing that self-efficacy and motivation are critical skills. It could also be useful to understand how much of an impact schools have on developing and supporting students’ social emotional learning compared to home or other environments. There is also a lot of work left to be done around measuring SEL skills and how to use more objective measures than self-reports, such as administrative records, to approximate certain sets of skills. For example, maybe GPA or attendance measure certain skills better than self-report. It’s important for schools to have resources. I think the best resource for schools interested in SEL programming is CASEL, at the University of Illinois, Chicago. They’ve been around for a long time; they were way ahead of the curve on the importance of SEL for student outcomes. They have a library on programs and interventions, and on SEL research findings. They’ve done a great service for researchers and schools in highlighting the importance of SEL for schools and students.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share with schools?

We’ve known for a long time that SEL skills are really important for student success, and they are malleable—they can change. So when I meet with school staff, we often have the conversation about how it may be worthwhile to focus at least some resources on SEL in addition to what they do to for their students’ cognitive growth (i.e. getting them ready for academic testing, etc.). This is a strong combination to ensure academic and life success.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Katherine McKnight (Senior manager, education research) and Jeffrey A. Rosen (Senior Research Analyst ) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.