Newswise — As we move into the new year, with the pandemic and all it has wrought still with us, there is a pressing need to address the social and emotional well-being of young people, many of whom are experiencing anxiety and loss of connection with peers and adults. In fact, from March through October of 2020, mental health-related hospital emergency department visits rose 24 percent for children ages five to eleven and 31 percent among adolescents ages 12 to 17 when compared to the same period in 2019, according to the CDC.

Helping students build social and emotional skills might aid in addressing this problem, but how can communities work to nurture SEL? The most comprehensive study of social and emotional learning implementation to date, Early Lessons from Schools and Out-of-School Time Programs Implementing Social and Emotional Learning, offers insights. It examines Wallace’s multiyear Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative, or PSELI, an effort exploring whether and how children can benefit from partnerships between schools and out-of-school-time  programs focused on building social and emotional skills—and what it takes to do the work.

We spoke with one of the authors of the report, Heather Schwartz, a RAND senior policy researcher, about the findings and what districts might learn from them.

What are the main topics that this report covers?

We summarize the on-the-ground lessons learned over the first two years of 38 partnerships between elementary schools and out-of-school-time (OST) programs across six communities that are attempting to embed social and emotional learning throughout the school and afterschool day. To extract lessons from these activities, we draw on a trove of data that includes approximately 5,000 completed surveys, 850 interviews, and observations of more than 3,000 instructional and noninstructional activities in schools and OST programs. We organize the lessons into four themes: (1) system-level activities to launch and coordinate SEL work across multiple sites, (2) district-OSTI and school-OST partnerships, (3) the development of adults’ capacity to promote SEL, and (4) climate and delivering SEL instruction to students.

[Note: The first two themes emerge in part from the “system” aspect of the initiative;  school districts in the six communities are working with citywide out-of-school-time coordinating organizations, known as intermediaries, or OSTIs, to promote SEL and oversee the partnerships between the individual schools and OST programs.]

What are some challenges that partnerships between schools and afterschool/OST programs faced in implementing SEL? What were some strategies the communities used to overcome these challenges?

We learned it took longer than expected to get the SEL work off the ground in each community. Thinking right now about the school district central office and the out-of-school-time intermediaries who were coordinating the work in each community, hiring a manager for the SEL work proved especially important. They were often the ones who organized and distilled the essentials of what the schools and OST programs were expected to do.

Another big challenge is that most communities experienced considerable flux even before COVID-19, and this churn slowed down their work. For example, there has been a high rate of staff turnover especially in school districts and among OST instructors, budget cuts, superintendent turnover, and teacher walk outs in several of the six communities. Some of the lessons we gleaned were to keep the goals and number of activities manageable in light of turnover, to document the work so that incoming hires can pick up where outgoing staff left off, to hire an SEL manager to oversee the work and to keep it simple for the sites considering the limited time the elementary school and out-of-school-time staff had to devote.

All of the communities started out by focusing on building adult SEL knowledge and skills through professional development and coaching. Why was this critical?

They started with the adults, reasoning that adults needed to understand and model the skills themselves before teaching them to their students. And positive, warm, caring adult relationships with students are critical for students’ social and emotional development. 

The communities approached adult skill-building differently; some sites offered system-designed training and others developed their own approach. Regardless of the approach, staff wanted SEL professional development to include hands-on practice and, as their SEL work progressed, to focus on differentiation of SEL instruction.

What insights and implications should district leaders take away from this report? What about school and OST leaders? Policymakers?

My sense is that communities should think in terms of several years, not just one year, to ramp up to full adoption of SEL. That way they can layer on one or two discrete new instructional activities for students per year. Trying to introduce too much at once can leave unfinished, confused work. Schools especially already have a tremendous amount of instruction and services to provide, so it’s better to be realistic about how much bandwidth school and OST staff have to adopt new practices.

Another lesson that has emerged is that districts and OSTIs should be as concrete as possible about social and emotional learning. They can do this by envisioning the end goal—what actual observable behaviors and activities should a visitor see if she or he spent a whole day in a school and afterschool? And then work backward from there to sequence out what specific training and resources to provide to schools and OST programs. Communities struggled to define SEL and develop shared terminology, so it can help to get people on the same page to think through what you’re trying to see on the ground—i.e., the “look fors” and the “do knows”—to make SEL less abstract.

What kinds of practices have emerged for adapting SEL curricula and programming for a racially and culturally diverse student body?

This was an emerging area for PSELI communities, who are just now developing materials for adapting curricula. While most of the PSELI districts or schools modified the SEL curriculum they had selected, it was generally to shorten the lessons. But a few communities made modifications to the curricula to make it more widely adaptable. For example, one community started to make videos to replace the SEL curriculum videos and to make the lessons more reflective of students in that community. In two communities, teachers did their own translations to Spanish when needed. A third community offered trainings to school staff on equity to inform SEL work with deaf and hard-of-hearing populations. Coaches in one community also referenced teachers’ use of visual charts and nonverbal cues to support multiple types of learners. Finally, SEL coaches offered ways to teachers to differentiate SEL instruction. As one coach explained, “it can 100 percent be taught in a way that is culturally responsive and supportive to students with disabilities and students that are English learners; however, it takes a skilled teacher to be able to do that. So, without [instructional coaching] support, I would say it would be much more difficult.”

How will these report findings inform PSELI going forward?

We organized the report around categories of early lessons to help, among others, practitioners teaching and overseeing SEL. We hope that the schools and OST programs in the six PSELI communities, along with educators in other cities, use those lessons that resonate for their work.