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How SEL Supports Academic Instruction and Learning

Social emotional wellbeing and learning is foundational for academic learning and growth. Support that of your students with resources we rounded up in this blog.

SchooLinks Staff
SchooLinks Staff

Jan 10, 2022

Educators, counselors, and administrators know that social emotional learning (SEL) is an important component of schooling. For many young students, a kindergarten classroom is one of the first times they must walk in a line, wait their turn, and work and play within a group of peers. This is a time when students begin to be more aware of their emotions and relate to others. It is widely understood that these experiences in school are instrumental to the social, emotional, and interpersonal development of students. Emerging research has shown that social emotional wellbeing and learning is foundational for academic learning and growth. Put differently, students cannot fully engage with academic content without key SEL skills. 

SEL lessons provide students with resources and tools to focus on academic learning, think critically, problem solve, and adapt and persevere when they are presented with an obstacle. By allowing students to more fully participate in academic learning, these skills promote better comprehension and understanding of academic content. A seminal meta-analysis that examined the effects of SEL instruction across the K-12 spectrum found that students who had participated in social emotional learning made academic gains of 11 points on achievement tests compared to control groups. And, academic gains as a result of SEL instruction have been shown to be consistent across all student populations, regardless of racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Our current students have been impacted by three school years of pandemic-related disruptions in their schooling as they have had to shift between different learning models, absent the traditional routines and support of in-person schooling. This lack of continuity in learning and practice, combined with increased stress from varying circumstances at home, has led to gaps in academic learning and significant regression in social-emotional skills for many students. Because districts often see academics as their primary goal, and data is showing that students are struggling with learning loss, many might feel compelled to fill more time with academic instruction at the cost of SEL instruction. Districts and teachers must avoid this pattern of thinking. Having opportunities for students to learn explicitly and practice social emotional skills is more important than ever–for both their long-term social emotional learning and development and their academic success.


SEL Lessons & Resources For Instruction To Build A Positive Learning Environment

Just as an elementary school teacher recognizes that most students do not innately know how to do long division and therefore must teach it, so, too, must educators not assume that students have the requisite social emotional skills and have resources to explicitly instruct and guide students. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)--the leading authority on social emotional learning–has identified five core competencies of SEL that are integral for students to practice and develop. These include: 

  • Self-awareness 
  • Self-management 
  • Responsible decision-making 
  • Relationship skills 
  • Social awareness 

To ensure effective and robust social emotional teaching and learning, teachers need access to high-quality lessons and resources to embed social and emotional learning throughout the school day. These resources need to allow for explicit SEL teaching in a variety of ways as it works best for a school or teacher–during a morning meeting; integrated into existing core content in language arts, math, science, or social studies; or during other opportunities for direct instruction and role playing. These resources must be developmentally-appropriate–deliverable in short segments with examples relevant to young children’s experiences and embedded opportunities for practice. 

This type of explicit teaching and learning benefits the academic growth and development of each individual student as well as a class as a whole. It creates a baseline of understanding and expectations around what it looks like and feels like to learn together. When SEL is taught and practiced in an ongoing manner, students have tools to manage their emotions, they can participate in large-group learning, and they can productively work with others to move learning forward. And, when students develop these SEL skills, teachers are not spending the majority of important teaching and learning time managing whole-group or individual behavior disruptions.  

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Flexible Resources For Monitoring And Responding To SEL Needs

In addition to providing content to support explicit instruction, social emotional learning is a dynamic process and must include flexible instruction and practice in response to students’ questions, school climate changes, classroom community needs, and individual circumstances as they arise so that they do not create barriers to student academic engagement and learning. 

  • Library of As-Needed Content: To support this adaptability and personalization, teachers need access to resources that can help them respond to things happening with their students and adapt their instruction to better meet their students’ needs. Finding a developmentally-appropriate and high-quality SEL resource that targets a specific need is incredibly challenging in the moment. Providing teachers with a library of such resources that they can draw from means teachers can more effectively and immediately deal with the emerging issue or need, resetting student readiness for instruction and preserving valuable instructional time. 
  • Daily Student Check-Ins: Teachers also need access to information about how their students are feeling and if they are ready to learn. A check-in system that students complete individually helps teachers to take the pulse of the classroom and support critical, individual student needs as they arise. This not only provides in-the-moment feedback to teachers about how their instruction might need to shift or change, but it allows teachers to more fully meet the needs of their students. Continuing with instruction when students feel upset or have other, more pressing social issues or concerns on their mind is ineffective and can even lead to further gaps in learning and understanding. 
  • SEL Progression Over Time: Another important component of an SEL platform is having regular data to know if the SEL activities students are engaging with are effective and to see how students are progressing in their social emotional learning over time. This allows educators to target support for SEL gaps long before they become barriers to learning and connecting with peers. 

SEL Precedes Academic Learning

When students cannot focus on a lesson, when they cannot stop thinking about a hard morning before school, when they cannot productively listen to and participate in a group conversation, they are not able to engage with academic content and struggle to make regular forward progress in learning. In other words, high-quality SEL instruction and practice is necessary in order for students to be successful academically. 

At this uniquely challenging time when schools are grappling with how to best support student learning and close gaps that emerged or widened during the pandemic, districts and educators must resist the urge to expand academic instructional time at the exclusion of social emotional learning, for doing so will have far reaching negative consequences on SEL and academic learning. Rather, districts must ensure that students engage in ongoing social emotional learning in order to support the work it will take to fill those academic gaps. In order to do this, districts must provide teachers with access to resources that can be easily integrated into their lessons or deployed to meet specific student or classroom needs. With these types of resources in place and readily available, educators are able to create a learning environment that symbiotically meets the social, emotional, and academic learning needs of all students.

Social emotional learning and academic learning are not siloed, and neither should the platform that supports them be. Check out how SchooLinks supports both.

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