Deep Dives

“We teach who we are, not just what we know.” What Top Researchers Had to Say About Adult SEL

December 6, 2023

We’re still buzzing from the insights shared by field-leading researchers during the 2023 SEL Exchange plenary, The Science of Adult Transformation to Create Caring Schools. We were excited to bring together three leading experts to share their latest research related to adult SEL. Here are the highlights:

Dr. Rebecca Collie
University of New South Wales
AERA’s Outstanding Early Career Scholar

“What teachers need for well-being are relationships with students, relationships with colleagues, and supportive school leadership.” — Dr. Rebecca Collie 

Dr. Collie studied the well-being of teachers in two types of schools: supportive schools, which offer opportunities to build relatedness with students and colleagues and supportive leadership, versus unsupportive schools, which lack those supports and offer challenges in the form of workload and time pressures, disruptive student behavior, and unsupportive school leadership. She found that supportive schools correlated with greater teacher well-being, supportive teaching practices, and student achievement that was 40 points higher than in unsupportive schools. As she noted, “Flourishing teachers help to support flourishing students and flourishing schools.”

Dr. Robert Roeser
Penn State University 
Bennett-Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion, College of Health and Human Development

“It’s a secret in plain sight: We teach who we are, not just what we know.” — Dr. Robert Roeser 

One of Dr. Roeser’s teacher education students once said, “You never really taught us about how to just ‘be’ in the role of teacher.” This question launched him on a quest to explore the skills and knowledge needed to be a teacher. The outcome was a discovery: “Besides subject matter knowledge, developmental knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge, there’s a fourth domain of teacher expertise: It’s a domain of knowledge about how to be ourselves as teachers.” He offered his own Educator Framework for Professional Development to support the development of this knowledge domain: 

  • CALM: Emotion Regulation, Body Awareness
  • CLEAR: Attention Regulation, Empathy, and Perspective-Taking
  • KIND: Self-Compassion, Compassion for Others

Dr. Jason Okonofua
University of California, Berkeley
Renowned Social Psychologist

“What is important in fighting implicit bias is having a growth mindset about how students are able to grow and learn. It means seeing that misbehavior isn’t a character flaw… it means having an empathetic mindset.” — Dr. Jason Okonofua

“Most approaches to reduce implicit bias do not work,” said Dr. Okonofua. At best, he noted, the effects of these efforts last something like five minutes to 36 hours. “Then it comes right back.” A better solution, he said, involves cultivating and tapping into attributes most teachers share: a strong impulse for empathy and a commitment to growth mindset. “If students misbehave, it’s not an indictment of their character, but a situation they can grow and learn from.” The same goes for teachers: “Have a growth mindset about a teacher’s capacity to build a relationship with a student even when it feels fraught.”  

Taking this alternative approach of applying a growth mindset when coaching teachers to recognize and overcome their implicit biases in a Bay Area school produced striking results: Suspensions fell by 50 percent across the school year, and a larger sample in the South saw rates decline by 45 percent. Even more impressive, when the approach was tried with juveniles leaving detention and returning to school, there was a 60 percent decrease in recidivism.

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