Three Opportunities for SEL Research and Practice

December 5, 2022
Christina Cipriano, Ph.D.
Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
Three Opportunities for SEL Research and Practice

The demand for social and emotional learning (SEL) isn’t slowing, it’s growing. As we begin to turn down the volume on the politicization of SEL, we hear a cacophony of students experiencing unprecedented mental health challenges, educators burning out, and families seeking stability and wellness. If you Google “SEL” right now, you’ll retrieve over a billion hits. There has unequivocally never been more interest in SEL nor more evidence pointing to the importance of high-quality, systematic SEL implementation to help school communities thrive.

For more than a decade, my research has focused on SEL assessment and intervention with marginalized students, educators, and classrooms. My research contributes to what we’ve learned to date, and further identifies that we’ve got a lot more to learn about wholly inclusive and equitable SEL. In reflecting on the surge of interest in SEL, I have identified three categories of challenges for the SEL field. In the interest of practicing what I preach, I am choosing to reappraise these challenges and offer them as opportunities for our field.

Opportunity 1: All SEL programs are not created equal. SEL programs include a huge constellation of skills and strategies. In our forthcoming review, we document more than 700 that are organized into complementary but different frameworks. Furthermore, the underlying theories that SEL programs are built on vary, which contributes to variability in how SEL programs are implemented (duration, dosage, S.A.F.E., free-standing, classroom-based, multi-component, tiered), who facilitates the program, what training supports are used, and how family/community engagement is involved. Each and every one of these factors matters in how programs differentially benefit students, classrooms, and school communities. When we talk about SEL programs, we need to be specific about what type of programming is being implemented. Our field will be more vulnerable to politicized commentary and criticism in the absence of this specificity.

Opportunity 2: Not all SEL assessments are created equal. The rush to meet the need for accountability metrics for SEL investments by researchers, practitioners, and industry alike has left our field saturated with assessment options. In fact, the range of assessments used to evaluate SEL programs’ effectiveness is almost as wide as the variations in skills taught in SEL programs. Given the variations in assessment content (i.e., what skills and competencies are being assessed), how they are delivered, and when, there’s variability in the quality, intention, and precision of the assessment. This variability can be helpful or misleading, depending upon our intention as researchers and practitioners.

If we are seeking the demonstration of a specific skill development, such as improved emotion regulation, this evaluation would be best measured by a discrete assessment of emotion regulation, which is less popular among practitioners due to the time and lift of administration during the school day. However, global measures of SEL—those that produce single or aggregate scores—can be problematic for different reasons, including lack of precision and the wide variability in competencies measured. Further complicating matters, we must consider why and for whom each assessment was developed and how it was built and normed. Once this information is in hand, we then can consider who gets the data and how it is used. In our lab, we are committed to partnering with students and educators to co-design measures that are meaningful and useful for their SEL needs. These partnerships have resulted in novel, precise assessments of SEL that produce score profiles instead of competency scores, and data reports made by and for students. Many of the tools further present this data in real time and in a way that is meaningful within the specific context of the intervention and school community.

Opportunity 3: Not all reports of SEL effects are created equal, nor are they advancing equity. My review work for the SEL field (see Cipriano et al., 2021; Cipriano et al., 2022) extends from Durlak and colleagues’ seminal paper and legacy to explicate what we know and what we need to know about universal school-based SEL interventions. Our comprehensive search of studies of SEL interventions’ effects available since 2008 retrieved over 32,000 studies to consider, and although on the surface this overflowing evidence library may appear bountiful, it required straining to be meaningful. The range in quality of interventions is wide, and gaps of missing data are deep.

Layered on top of this crater of challenges, meaningful subgroup analyses are few and far between for students with disabilities, and students with minoritized racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and linguistic identities are underrepresented and overgeneralized in the body of evidence for SEL. These omissions and misrepresentations leave us in a state of wondering who benefits from SEL programs, and further opens up our field to criticism and commentary that can diminish the confidence in SEL as wholly effective support for all students and schools. We have an opportunity to improve and advance how we study, catalog, and report on the effectiveness of SEL interventions. This evolution will honor the beautiful diversity of learners, educators, and classrooms, dispel myths about SEL, and promote healthy and productive discourse for the field moving forward. 

SEL has played and will continue to play an important role in promoting the academic, social, and emotional development of young people, their educators, and families. As 2022 comes to a close, and interest in SEL continues to grow, I encourage our field to reflect on these opportunities and work to evolve our field forward, together.

Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is a Yale Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, and the director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Learn more about her research at her website. She also received a 2022 Social and Emotional Learning Leaders of the Year (SELLY) Award from CASEL.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.


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