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Improving mental health through social and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning and mental health is a high priority for K-12 school districts. Use these strategies to make improvements in your district.
Improving mental health through social and emotional learning graphic
Improving mental health through social and emotional learning graphic

Student mental health is a top priority for many K-12 school districts. This is especially true as the education community picks up the pieces from the pandemic and fields new curveballs. A solid starting point is investing in or recommitting to social and emotional learning (SEL). Along with improving learner outcomes and school climate, SEL promotes positive mental health. It also helps prevent mental health disorders among children and youth. 

Researchers point to the exponential benefits of taking a system-wide approach to SEL implementation. In light of today’s extreme circumstances, adopting this approach may be challenging but well worth it. 

Learners and teachers in crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated public health measures exacerbated an already-stressful school climate. In 2019 Pew research findings, seven in 10 students aged 13 to 18 named anxiety and stress a major problem for their peer group. Now emerging data on young people validates what educators have observed first hand during the past 18 months. 

Across a range of metrics, the mental health of children and adolescents has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, say researchers at the Harvard University Center for the Developing Child. They cite concerns related to anxiety, depression and self-harm. They also note a CDC-documented increase in children’s mental health-related emergency department visits since April 2020.

Learners form part of a larger academic community, and SEL should be a priority for the entire community. 

Christina Cipriano is the director of research at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. She calls teachers “the co-constructors of knowledge in the classroom.” She repeatedly refers back to adults in an EdSurge interview on social and emotional learning for students. She makes it clear that children are highly influenced by the emotional state and skills of the adults teaching them. 

The ability to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate one’s emotions is known as RULER. It is the Yale center’s approach for teaching social and emotional learning competencies. A teacher models these skills in all interactions in the classroom with students who are continuously seeing and learning them. 

However, to successfully model these competencies, personal integration needs to be already happening for the teacher. Not surprisingly, the work at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence emphasizes social-emotional learning. It also encourages courses for staff and educators, as well as children.

“Research shows that where there is an emotionally skilled adult present, students focus more, disrupt less, and perform better academically,” says Marc Brackett. He is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the author of Permission To Feel. “These adults also have lower levels of stress and burnout, fewer intentions to leave the profession, greater job satisfaction, and more engaging classrooms.”

Cipriano adds that social-emotional competencies underscore the ability to learn and the ability to teach. “These are skills that all people and all learners across the lifespan need to continuously develop and invest their time and energy in to be able to be positive contributors to their life and those around them.” 

Focus on leadership and SEL

This work can’t stop at the level of the teachers. Cipriano points to the logical need for leadership to focus on the psycho-social health and well-being of teachers.

“It’s important for the leadership to invest in social-emotional learning as something that is important from the top down, not just the bottom up. For that to happen, you obviously need to focus on the leaders and their psycho-social health and well being,” she said. “Otherwise it just becomes another thing that doesn’t stick.”

The cost has been high for districts that fell short in supporting teacher well-being during pandemic learning. An Education Week series documents a study that closely followed 75 school teachers across the nation since early 2021. 

Lead researcher Lora Bartlett is an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She points to two related findings that were established pre-COVID and are significant for post-COVID education.  

First, schools where teachers feel heard and have influence in decision-making are more likely to retain their teachers. Secondly, schools with high teacher turnover have lower student achievement

Teacher voice, teacher retention and student achievement are interconnected. It is telling that of the 75 teachers Bartlett’s research followed, 20 percent have left or are actively considering leaving the profession. 

These are experienced teachers, half with 10 plus years and the rest with over five years in teaching. Similarly, another survey conducted in early 2021 indicated one in four teachers were considering leaving their job. Pre-pandemic the average was one in six teachers. Nearly half of teachers identifying as Black or African American reported that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the school year. This is a significantly higher percentage than teachers of other races. 

Incorporating social and emotional learning across tiers, especially among leadership, has proven successful. It creates an environment where teacher choice and voice are taken seriously.

SEL frameworks and assessment 

Several frameworks exist to structure social and emotional learning for schools and districts. The widely used CASEL five competencies is an example. A Harvard University team also developed a visual, interactive resource called Explore SEL. They did this to help policymakers, advocacy groups and educators navigate different models around SEL, character and personality. 

They analyzed how several of the world’s most popular frameworks define skills like self-efficacy and conflict resolution. Their hope was to clarify some of the confusion on the terminology. The project is useful for schools using multiple frameworks or those choosing from different models to find what best meets their needs.

This resource also helps illuminate what types of skills popular frameworks favor and which they might be neglecting. For example, many of the major models emphasize cognitive, social, emotional and values skills. Yet few focus on identity and perspective. Sensitivity to the cultural background of learners and educators may affect how readily a student can integrate this learning. 

Measuring skills like self-management, social awareness, optimism or growth mindset is an issue under debate. If they are measured, there is concern about grading learners or attaching outcomes to accountability requirements for schools. 

On the other hand, it’s a best practice for schools to assess the success of their efforts. They should look at how they teach students skills like self-regulation, collaboration and social awareness. That said, it is critical to incorporate several different assessments and measure both school climate and learner competence.

To illustrate, teachers in one district in the Chicago suburbs filled out surveys about students’ skills. Low-income learners appeared to have little grit in comparison to gifted learners. Yet when students took assessments to measure their social-emotional abilities, the educators discovered the contrary. Learners from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to persevere than the others. 

Clark McKown is a social and emotional learning researcher and founder and president of xSEL Labs. Her company is dedicated to running performance assessments. She says, “Many SEL skills actually are measurable with the same level of precision that you can measure a reading skill or a math skill. They’re not as soft as you might think.”

Offsetting stress and trauma at school

A student or adult’s ability to regulate their emotions relates directly to academic learning, explains Cipriano. That means no matter how dynamic the curriculum is, a student dealing with stress or trauma won’t be able to process the lesson. 

“We all have different triggers of stress throughout our life and different emotions that can hijack our body’s ability to be able to process the world meaningfully,” says Cipriano. “If we’re not able to regulate or down-regulate in a given situation, we’re not able to process the information of what we’re being taught.”

That stress may come from economic uncertainty in the family or concern about an elderly loved one. It could also come from having to use counterintuitive technology in class. Even prior trauma may be offset through trauma-informed SEL practices in the classroom, schools report

Consider the research findings of Dr. Christina Bethell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She researched the long-term effects of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) on mental health. 

The effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on childhood trauma and adulthood health outcomes are well-documented. Like ACEs, Bethell found PCEs have a greater effect when they’re cumulative. This means that every encounter is an intervention.

“Every interaction with a child has a reaction in that child,” says Bethell. “Even as [educators] keep working to address the many social and cultural factors we need to address to prevent negative experiences, we should be focused on proactive promotion of the positive.”

Promoting positive experiences can be as simple as allotting time for learners or educators to share what’s on their minds without being judged. This could be wellness check-ins implemented by some districts. Opening the lines of communication can help learners feel more comfortable when an emotionally-loaded situation comes up. 

“The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing and increasing resilience,” says Executive Principal Matthew Portell. He clarifies that helping students with trauma is not in lieu of professional therapy. He also emphasizes that a trauma-informed approach is not about fixing our kids. “Systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized are the problems, not the children.”

As school system members develop SEL competencies continuously and across the board, there is new hope that these structures will shift in a more humane and inclusive direction.

Explore how an educator uses Hāpara Highlights as a coaching tool for social and emotional learning in her classroom.

Developing a classroom culture of resilience with Hāpara Highlights mockup small

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