Inside the Growing Push for Social and Emotional Learning in K-12 Education

Rido/shutterstock

Rido/shutterstock

Philanthropies funding education are increasingly talking about social and emotional learning and other approaches that take the “whole child” into account. A growing body of research, grassroot demands, and the cultural moment have all contributed to the rise of these approaches, even though those terms can mean slightly different things to different people.

At its core, social and emotional learning (SEL) emphasizes the soft skills kids need to succeed—skills like handling their emotions, feeling empathy for others, forming relationships and making responsible decisions. The approach hasn’t received as much attention as other trends in education, like the spread of personalized learning or early childhood learning, but social and emotional learning has caught the eye of some deep-pocketed backers, including deep-pocketed newcomers like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Rising interest in SEL comes at a moment of growing pushback to an education reform agenda that’s been narrowly focused on student achievement as measured by standardized tests. And it comes as more funders focus on the nexus between education and poverty, looking to address the factors outside school that so often undermine student success.

“It has for a long time in this country been the case that academics were the only thing that really mattered and the only way in which schools defined the purpose of education,” said Karen Niemi, CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). “The social and emotional work is intended to help make places that help support the emotional, the social and the academic lives of kids.”

So what exactly is social and emotional learning? Well, to some degree, the answer depends on who’s asked. A good place to start, though, is with CASEL—a nonprofit backed by a range of foundations that’s dedicated to supporting and growing SEL as a field.

“SEL is not a program. It’s not the kind of thing that’s a set of lessons you put into your classroom and call it a day,” Niemi said. “Social and emotional learning is really a way of doing school that helps prioritize whole child development, and that includes what you would do at a district policy level, a school practice level, what happens in the classroom—not only what is taught, but how it’s taught—and also what’s happening with family and community partnerships.”

Incorporating SEL into a classroom, school, district or community “means that the schools are prioritizing every aspect of human development, not only what our schools have traditionally prioritized, which is academics alone,” she said.

More specifically, under CASEL’s framework classrooms, schools and districts prioritize students’ development in five areas in addition to traditional academic outcomes. Two categories, self-awareness and self-management, deal with how students relate to themselves, two more address how students relate to others through social awareness and relationship skills. The final competency is relationship building.

So what do each of these phrases mean? Self-awareness encompasses teaching kids how to identify their emotions, recognize their strengths, build self-confidence and gain the ability to advocate for themselves and speak up about their needs.

Self-management refers to a child’s ability to regulate her own emotions, thoughts and behavior. It includes managing stress, controlling impulses and finding motivation to set and work toward personal and academic goals.

Social awareness means the ability to feel empathy for others and willingness to understand their perspectives. This skill includes building empathy across diverse backgrounds and different cultures.

Relationship skills allow kids to establish and maintain rewarding relationships with diverse groups and individuals. This competency stresses communication, listening and cooperation, as well as conflict resolution and the ability to find or offer help when needed. It also includes working on a team.

Responsible decision making is the final skill in the set of five core competencies. It “is not telling people what are good decisions, but rather, what is the process you go through to make good decisions?” Niemi said. “How do you analyze a situation? How do you solve problems? How do you evaluate?”

Enter Philanthropy

What SEL looks like in practice can differ from place to place. When philanthropies take up SEL and whole child education, it can mean taking on all of these competencies, emphasizing a few or adding additional priorities.

At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, SEL and its tenets are included within a broader definition of whole child learning that includes traditional academics, cognitive development, identity development, and mental and physical health. CZI is one of CASEL’s funders.

At the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the foundation’s longtime focus is helping people get along better. There’s a big emphasis on instilling empathy in kids and encouraging cooperation despite differences. Though Einhorn supports social and emotional learning as a field through grants to organizations like CASEL that are committed to building out SEL, it is SEL’s emphasis on building relationships and social awareness that resonates most with Einhorn’s goals and values.

Funders may also prefer to use different methods to encourage social and emotional learning. CASEL’s Niemi pointed out that social and emotional learning should happen on several levels. That includes in classrooms, schools and districts, as might be expected. However, Niemi also mentioned the importance of engaging parents and communities when it comes to integrating SEL approaches into a child’s development.

In addition to supporting SEL in K-12 settings, Einhorn also works with parents around early childhood development to ensure children experience healthy relationships before reaching school age. Research shows that a big way kids learn how to form relationships is to see them modeled. That means having connected, nurturing relationships with their first caregivers, often parents.

Within the foundation’s K-12 work, Einhorn believes there are many opportunities throughout the school day to teach students valuable skills about relating well with others. The trust’s grantee Playworks focuses on recess as an opportunity for social and emotional learning. The nonprofit reports that its tailored approach to recess results in positive changes to school culture and climate, and fewer incidents of bullying and disciplinary actions.

Empowering teachers is another popular tactic for promoting SEL and whole child learning. CZI made several grants in 2018 that focused on providing SEL training for teachers or caring for the social and emotional needs of teachers themselves.

The NoVo Foundation, which carries out the giving of Warren Buffett’s youngest son, Peter, and his wife Jennifer, works not only with schools and districts but also directly with teachers. The foundation started the SEL Innovation Fund in 2016, which provides grants of up to $5,000 to individual teachers who want to integrate social and emotional learning into their classrooms. The fund also provides grants of up to $25,000 to districts.

NoVo’s SEL work also intersects with the movement to bring more equity into school and district disciplinary practices. The funder supports programs that incorporate a strong racial and gender justice perspective and is part of the Communities for Just Schools donor collaborative, which works to reimagine discipline models in schools.

“There’s a Real Moment Happening Right Now”

While SEL might mean different things to different funders, there seems to be a definite consensus that this approach to learning and teaching is on the rise.

“There’s a real moment that’s happening right now,” said Itai Dinour, who leads Einhorn’s K-12 education work. “Until recently, there were a few funders in the SEL field. I think what we’ve now seen is a tremendous surge in interest and participation, not just of foundations that think of youth development or a broader definition of student success, but foundations that now are naming SEL in their strategy and in their giving.”

In a landscape analysis of the SEL field released in the fall of 2018, the Aspen Institute estimated that philanthropies had invested at least $400 million in support of social and emotional learning, which, for the record, the study’s authors noted probably wasn’t enough to support the field’s expansion. It’s unlikely that the $400 million figure is a full picture of philanthropic dollars supporting the field, as it was based only on foundations that chose to submit data.

Varying definitions of social and emotional learning and its place within broader whole child interventions can also make it tricky to track philanthropic involvement. For example, from 2016 to now, CZI has spent $308 million to support the education of the whole child. Social and emotional learning is part of that, but those grants also covered the other competencies included in CZI’s definition of whole child learning.

Since 2007, the NoVo Foundation has spent $114 million in support of SEL. On the corporate side, the insurance company Allstate contributed $22 million to social and emotional learning from around 2015 to 2018. The insurance company committed $45 million to the field over the next five years with the goal of making sure at least 20 percent of students have access to SEL by 2022.

“The Missing Piece”

The recent popularity of social and emotional learning is linked to several converging factors. First, thanks in part to efforts from organizations like CASEL, there’s a growing body of research supporting the benefits of social and emotional learning, which include improved academic performance. Each of the philanthropies and corporate givers interviewed for this story emphasized the role research played in their decisions to support social and emotional learning.

Based on a meta-analysis sponsored by CASEL of 213 studies which included about 250,000 kids, students who engaged in social and emotional learning performed 11 percentile points higher by measures of academic achievement than their peers.

“When kids get SEL, they do better academically,” Niemi said. “They also have better behavior. They have fewer episodes of conduct issues. It is tightly linked to better mental health. It is also documented that SEL has impact on longer-term life outcomes. That has to do with things like employment, criminal activity, substance abuse, mental health.”

The long-term outcomes were a big part of what attracted Allstate to social and emotional learning, said Laura Freveletti, the company’s senior manager of strategic philanthropy. From 2005 to 2015, the company’s philanthropic work around young people focused on making driving more safe and reducing driving deaths. After a decade, the company and its partners made significant headway in the space.

“It was at that point that we turned our attention to what else we could do to ensure that young people were successful,” Freveletti said. “And so we did research at that point into what types of skills or programs were necessary for young people to be successful not just in their schools, but in life.”

Although the skills that kids learn from whole child approaches are correlated with better academic performance, Allstate recognized the value those skills had in the workplace.

“Social and emotional learning skills are so important for young people to succeed, but they’re also skills that everyone in the workplace is looking for,” Freveletti said. “Employers are looking for new hires to have those types of skills. Even at Allstate, we look to help our own current workforce to develop those skills.”

Like Allstate, Einhorn saw the big picture potential in its goal to help people get along.

“The inability to work across lines of difference is one of the great impediments to solving social problems,” said Jennifer Hoos Rothberg, Einhorn’s executive director. “If we can actually help people to develop the skills and orientation to work well across lines of difference, then more problems, big and small, would be solved.” It’s a message that’s become even more resonant as the tone and tenor of the national political dialogue has deteriorated.

Grassroots demands for support for SEL from school leaders, teachers and parents have also helped draw attention to the field. “Within the last, I don’t know, five years, and definitely in the last three years, we have seen just an amazing momentum for change,” Niemi said. “That is represented not only in terms of the progress we’re making in state and federal policy, but also in the work and demand from teachers, from superintendents, from district-level leads, and even now from parents, [it] has just skyrocketed.”

“That has resulted also in, I think, a way bigger awareness and interest from philanthropic leaders, not only on the foundation side, but we’ve now started to see a greater pull from the business community,” she said.

Einhorn’s Dinour echoed Niemi in his own assessment of SEL’s popularity. “We’re hearing loudly from teachers, principals, parents and students themselves that SEL plays a critical role—and is often seen as the ‘missing piece’—in education,” he said. “Philanthropy is paying more attention to those critical voices.”

Niemi says it’s helpful that SEL’s priorities and approach track with what parents and educators have known intuitively for a long time—that kids have needs that aren’t addressed by a traditional approach focused on academic outcomes, and that students do better in the classroom when their social and emotional needs are met.

One of the factors behind CZI’s embrace of whole child learning was founder Priscilla Chan’s experience working with kids as a pediatrician and classroom teacher, said April Chou, CZI’s vice president of education.

“I think what she found through that work as a doctor in a clinical setting with only so much time with a child, there were only so many things she could do with them in that context,” said Chou. “In the classroom, she had a very specific role, but it was so clear that students were coming into her classroom with a number of other things and contexts and the like.

“I think the whole child emphasis that we have really reflects her sense that you can’t take these things apart in a child, so therefore, we need to really see the child fully for who they are, their experiences in and out of the classroom, and how these things are woven together.”

What Comes Next: “Investing in Quality”

By all accounts, social and emotional learning is picking up momentum and likely to continue doing so. It’s clear that it’s attracted some deep-pocketed and high-profile backers along the way. CZI is backed by the Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan’s husband. The NoVo Foundation is powered by large annual gifts of Berkshire Hathaway stock from Warren Buffett that will continue for years to come. David Einhorn, the hedge fund manager behind the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, is estimated to be worth $1.3 billion.

Not only that, but the growing support of social and emotional learning isn’t measured solely by foundations taking it on as their signature cause or the main thrust of their education work. SEL and its principles are also popping up in the giving of foundations better known for other priorities.

The Walton Family Foundation, which is known for its work to bolster charter schools, supports Valor Collegiate Academies in Tennessee, which incorporates social and emotional learning in its school model. The public health giant the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is another ally of the SEL field, with an eye on the health and wellness of young people.

Though it’s exciting to see SEL pick up speed and high-profile supporters, Niemi shared words of caution for philanthropists bent on scaling the work.

“The social and emotional learning movement has been built on research. It’s an approach to education that needs to be done with quality,” Niemi said. “When things get a lot of attention and a lot of awareness, like the social and emotional space is, and it becomes a buzzword, the field itself runs the risk of losing ground to poor quality.”

“If I have one wish, it’s that philanthropic supporters really recognize the need to protect quality,” she said. “Philanthropic supporters can really help kids by investing in quality and keeping in tune with what the research supports.”

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