CASEL Water Cooler

2023 Social and Emotional Learning Year in Review

December 14, 2023
2023 Social and Emotional Learning Year in Review

Reflecting on the past year, the word that springs to mind is impact. Despite continued challenges to education, politics, and our collective well-being, 2023 was most notable for the many educators, researchers, policy leaders, parents, and students who made a real impact on the lives of young people. 

Innovations in research and implementation deepened the scope and effectiveness of SEL. The circle of SEL advocates expanded among all who care about the future of youth. And youth and education leaders accelerated SEL efforts and fueled commitment to face the challenges ahead. 

As 2023 comes to a close, let’s reflect upon the year’s most impactful moments and consider how they can light the way for future advances.

Groundbreaking Research Deepened the Evidence Base for Effective SEL Implementation

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“We now know more than ever before about SEL, on a massive scale.” – Dr. Christina Cipriano, director of Yale University’s Education Collaboratory 

This year, three major reports added to the long-standing evidence base that SEL in school significantly benefits students socially, emotionally, and academically. Dr. Christina Cipriano et al.’s assessment of 424 studies from 53 countries found significant improvement in school climate, including feelings of connection and belonging, better relationships, less bullying, and an increased sense of safety. Dr. J. A. Durlak et al. offered a review of 12 meta-analyses involving 1 million students to determine the current state of universal, school-based SEL programs, while Dr. Mark Greenberg also reviewed findings from 12 independent meta-analyses spanning hundreds of studies of school based SEL programs. 

Local research also highlighted significant benefits. For example, the UChicago Consortium on School Research’s Investing in Adolescents found that schools promoting growth in SEL, test scores, and behaviors had a greater impact on student success than schools focusing solely on test scores, and also had positive impacts on students’ long-term trajectories (high school graduation rates, college enrollment).

At CASEL, we spent the year studying SEL innovations and how to build authentic partnerships with schools, families, and communities. We also cultivated new research across the field, publishing the first articles in our independent SEL Journal and welcoming a new cohort of Weissberg Scholars, early career researchers eager to make a difference in SEL.

Hear more: Webinar – The Evidence is Clear: An Update on Research Examining Social and Emotional Learning
Read more: Hear From our First Ever Weissberg Scholars

The SEL Community Made Every Day #SELDay 

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“Every child deserves a learning environment that is welcoming and enriching. By showing students how to develop their empathy skills, express themselves, and respect others, social and emotional learning can help students achieve academic success, build strong relationships, and prepare for a lifetime of success.”—U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)

Building upon the success of International SEL Day, we launched the first-ever National SEL Week, which was introduced by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) in a bipartisan resolution in the U.S. Senate. SEL Week also kicked off the SEL Superpowers Unite! campaign, launched by the Leading with SEL coalition to spread awareness and uplifting stories of SEL. Across the nation, the excitement has translated into deeper implementation of SEL, as evidenced by the 129 district leaders this year in CASEL’s SEL Fellows

Outside of the U.S., the global priority for SEL continues to expand, and we’ve seen a significant increase this year in international attention to CASEL’s framework and resources. SEL champions from 36 countries (and 47 U.S. states) also joined CASEL’s largest SEL Exchange yet, which brought more than 1,700 people together to deepen our shared learning around SEL. 

Read more: Highlights from the First National SEL Week

Students, Families, and Community Members Called for SEL—Not Politics—in Schools

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“I can’t emphasize enough how helpful social and emotional learning is for American families … We desperately need more social and emotional learning, not less.”Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union 

Across the nation, young people, parents, educators, and community members called for a deeper focus on SEL in schools and rejected political attempts to ban SEL. From students in Michigan to teachers in Utah and business leaders in Missouri, we heard loud and clear about the importance of this work.

As one student said, “The best lesson SEL has taught me is simple! It’s just being honest with myself and others because I would rather work to be the best version of myself instead of becoming something I’m not.” Another spoke about how SEL supported him as he learned to thrive in school as a student with disabilities.  

While political challenges continue, the vast majority of families and communities don’t want to play politics with children’s education and well-being. “We must stop harming our children to score political points,” said a former Georgia county Republican chairman. “All rational Americans believe that our precious children should be both safe and happy. That is the obvious purpose of SEL, and we should all endorse that aim and advocate for adding SEL to our schools.”

Read more: The Right Is Attacking Social Emotional Learning. What Exactly Is It?

Adult SEL Came to the Fore as a Powerful Means to Improve Teacher Well-Being and Retention 

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“Teachers’ perceived social and emotional competence at the beginning of the semester is linked with their well-being at the end of the semester, and it has an inverse relationship with quitting intentions. … Flourishing teachers support flourishing students and flourishing schools.” — Dr. Rebecca Collie

As concerns about teacher retention and well-being grew, we saw the importance of SEL in helping to create the kind of supportive environments where both adults and students can thrive.

At CASEL, adult SEL took center stage this year through our yearlong learning agenda and the SEL Exchange, where leading researchers shared the latest insights on supporting teachers’ personal and professional growth. More than a decade of learning alongside district partners also led to our updated guidance on adult SEL to prioritize community care—not just self-care—as well as connection and space for adult learning. In our research-practice partnerships, we also explored the role of collaborative vision-building and inclusive power-sharing in educator retention and engagement. 

Hear more: CASEL’s 4-part webinar series, “Leaders as Learners: Cultivating the Community”
Read more: “What We Learned from Focusing on Adult SEL”

States and Districts Prioritized SEL in Continuing Recovery Efforts 

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“SEL isn’t just good for students and their development. It’s also a tool to help schools foster equitable and nondiscriminatory school environments and, in the process, comply with civil rights laws.”—Dr. Robert Kim

With a focus on academic recovery and student well-being, states and districts continued leveraging pandemic recovery dollars to prioritize SEL as part of the solution. For example, Delaware used funds to extend the state’s Social, Emotional and Behavioral Wellbeing Plan (SEBW) that provides support to educators, school teams, and district-level teams on SEL. Meanwhile, Georgia administered grants to community organizations that provide evidence-based support for students’ learning, connectedness, and well-being.  

At the local level, districts in our Community Network Partners shared how they’re using funds to invest in SEL coaching and staffing, professional learning, evidence-based programs, and additional SEL support. Other district leaders also adjusted recovery plans this year in response to educators and families calling for more focus on the social and emotional needs of students. 

As spending deadlines loom for pandemic relief dollars, CASEL and many of our collaborators are examining how to sustain support for SEL—for example, by leveraging formula-funded ESEA programs to promote family engagement to support students’ academic, social, and emotional learning.   

Read more: State Bright Spots: SEL and the American Rescue Plan Act

The Ongoing Student Mental Health Crisis Foregrounded the Need for SEL

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“When schools closed, students’ relationships were disrupted, as were their opportunities to participate in activities – both in the classroom and beyond – that build teamwork, resilience, and other aspects of SEL. The pandemic’s impacts on mental health and on SEL are distinct but related, and it is critical that our recovery efforts address both.” —Student Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review of Evidence and Emerging Solutions

In 2023, we continued to grapple with the youth mental health crisis, with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounding the alarm in a report on loneliness and isolation. Teachers agreed, saying the current state of mental health negatively impacts classroom management and students’ learning. Given these concerns, teachers want more SEL and improvements to the SEL their schools currently offer.

CASEL, in partnership with the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH), has been working with districts and schools in eight states and the Bureau of Indian Education to explore how SEL can promote well-being for adults and students as part of a comprehensive approach to mental health in schools. As part of the effort, youth leaders from each state are developing projects to promote wellbeing in their schools, including starting wellness clubs and SEL campaigns. 

Read more: Tackling the Youth Mental Health Crisis Head-On

Technology Raised New Opportunities and Challenges for Education—and for SEL

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“Imagine the potential that schools may unlock by empowering students to drive the conversation around using AI to support their academic, social, and emotional growth. It just may turn out to be truly transformational.”—Margot Toppen

2023 saw the emergence of an urgent discussion about the use of generative artificial intelligence, or AI, in education. AI offers new solutions for improving efficiency and individualization, but it also raises concerns that students will miss opportunities to develop human relationships and their social and emotional skills.  

CASEL and many partners explored the “AI question” from a variety of angles this year. Dr. Aaliyah A. Samuel joined Stan Litow to assess how SEL could give students a competitive edge over AI in the workplace, while Margot Toppen asked if there is a way to combine AI and SEL to support student mental well-being. SEL Exchange panelists Dr. Kristal Ayre and Dr. Christina Gardner-McCune urged a spirit of exploration about what AI can offer students and teachers, advising about how we frame AI in education practices and policy. As technologies advance, we’ll continue examining how we might harness the power of AI to foster inclusive classrooms and strengthen our humanity. 

Read more: Artificial Intelligence and Social-Emotional Learning Are on a Collision Course

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