This past year, the term social and emotional learning (SEL) appeared everywhere, from headlines and news broadcasts to political speeches and household conversations. In some ways, this presented challenges, but I choose to see this as a moment for SEL and an opportunity for the field.
Although we’ve heard divisive narratives in media and politics, the truth is that most students, families, and educators support SEL. It was not the winning wedge issue in midterm elections that some politicians had hoped for. SEL continued to positively impact the lives of children worldwide as global interest accelerated, and new research further confirmed its benefits.
From this place of strength, unity, and hope, where will the field of SEL go next? With all eyes on SEL, what can we do to continue advocating for its importance? In my State of the Field webinar with Timothy Shriver, I reflected on four key pivots for the road ahead.
1. From division to unity
It may seem like there’s a sentiment around divisiveness in our country, but when it comes to SEL, we aren’t divided at all. We’re united in the knowledge that creating supportive environments that foster academic, social, and emotional skills is what’s best for children.
Again and again, the data confirm that the vast majority of parents and educators support SEL. 93% of parents of K-12 students say it’s important to them that their children’s schools teach them to develop social and emotional skills. And 86% of educators say they emphasize SEL in the classroom. 83% say it positively impacts academic outcomes, and 84% say it has a positive impact on skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.
These skills, along with other social and emotional skills like setting and achieving goals, making responsible decisions, and demonstrating self-motivation and self-discipline, are skills we all want our children to develop. Social and emotional skills connect to every walk of life and every aspect of life, from relationships and mental health to academic and career success.
Ask any adult, “What do you want for a young person you love?” and you will hear answers like “strong relationships” and “a happy, healthy adulthood.” Our dreams for our children and the needs of our children are so similar. SEL is not a partisan issue, and we can’t let politics get in the way of what families and communities want for kids.
Now is a time for the field of SEL to operate from a place of strength, rather than getting trapped in divisive rhetoric. If we continue to keep children, families, and communities—rather than politics—at the heart of education, we will continue to make the right decisions.
2. From fear to hope
One of the best ways to continue advancing the field of SEL is also one of the simplest: sitting down and talking with people. When we have honest conversations about what SEL means to us, how it shows up in our lives, and what we most want for our children, we can break down barriers and find common ground.
Yet I think for many of us, fear is what’s holding us back. Due to politics and false controversy, we’re afraid of talking about SEL. Rather than being paralyzed by the fear of initiating these crucial conversations, let’s move forward from a place of hope. We can’t shy away from the important conversations we need to have—and important actions we need to take—for our children’s social, emotional, and academic learning.
By sharing our experiences with SEL and listening to the experiences of others, we can move toward making sure every child feels valued, seen, and respected in school. As we make this shift, we can also move from being fearful of the future of our children to feeling hopeful about what’s ahead.
3. From focusing only on learning loss to also recognizing the impact of relationship loss on academics
As schools across the country reopened, learning loss rightfully became a major concern. But learning does not happen in a vacuum. School environments, community environments, and relationships—aspects of education that SEL can help support—are all deeply intertwined with academic learning.
We should continue discussing academic loss, but we must also talk about the impact of relationship loss. These are not competing priorities. Unless we close the gap on relationship loss, we won’t close the gap on learning loss.
SEL is not a distraction from academics, but a tool that can help us build relationships so we can get to academic recovery and success. Hundreds of independent studies confirm that SEL positively impacts academic achievement. When students have positive relationships that make them feel like part of a community, they want to come to school and learn.
4. From our role as leaders to our role as leaders and learners
Following the pandemic and upheaval of the past few years, we’re entering a new phase of learning and a new phase of living. The world, education, and the needs of those we serve are all changing.
This is a critical moment to see ourselves as both leaders and learners. Even as we lead the way for kids, we need to continue to learn and grow to meet this unique moment in time. We must continue to build our own social and emotional skills and listen and learn from one another, building real partnerships that help us move forward together.
Watch the full webinar, State of the Field 2023: SEL at a Crossroads.