school leadership

Explaining Social-Emotional Learning to Families Can Be Tough. Here's Three Things You Should Know.

Eighty-two percent of Americans think it’s very important for schools to help students develop interpersonal skills like cooperation, respect and persistence. Despite this, schools have historically relegated social and emotional learning (SEL) to mental health conversations that are largely disconnected from academic development. But that may be changing: many education leaders are increasingly looking to SEL programming as one way to support student’s academic, behavioral and interpersonal development. In order for SEL initiatives in schools to be successful, school leaders and local policymakers must be able to explain their investments and to communicate and build trust with families. Before I became an advocate for the use of education data to support students, my colleagues and I observed preschool classrooms across Washington, D.C. and looked at how educators understood and cultivated social-emotional skills—and how a focus on these skills could benefit students’ overall learning and development. From focus groups conducted with parents around the country, we’ve now learned effective strategies around talking about social-emotional learning. Communicating about SEL can be a challenging feat, because research has found that there isn’t a panacea term or phrase that parents can all agree on. A word like non-cognitive, which refers to attitudes and behaviors that comprise interpersonal interactions, is perceived as too academic and inaccessible for parents. Terms like behavioral skills and character development carry negative connotations and stigma that lead parents to believe something is wrong with their children. So what then are effective strategies for school leaders and policymakers to engage families in conversations about SEL data?
  1. Connecting SEL skills to overall student success—and how data helps us understand and support these skills. Research increasingly suggests that social-emotional and academic learning are interrelated and both skill sets are vital to student success. And from student and teacher satisfaction surveys to course grades and test scores to suspension and discipline rates, it’s data that helps us understand the impact of SEL. School leaders and policymakers have a responsibility to help families see and understand these connections.
  2. Putting students and families at the center of the conversation. School investments in SEL skills must reach beyond the school doors—families and trusted partners like afterschool caregivers have a central role in social-emotional development and must be engaged in conversations about these skills and data. Many schools and out-of-school time (OST) partners collaborate and securely share information to support student learning. When families see themselves and their community members as having roles in supporting SEL development and using data, they can better understand and trust the school’s work.
  3. Explaining how SEL skills support success in school and in life. SEL skills like persistence and cooperation benefit students beyond the classroom, helping them succeed in their careers and in life. When talking about why schools are investing in SEL development and using data to understand and support these skills, families benefit from seeing how these skills benefit their children as people, not only as students.
If states want to see meaningful returns on the nationwide budding investment in social-emotional learning programming, state leaders and policymakers need to be intentional around communicating clearly and accessibly about SEL to families and caregivers. An appetite exists for building interpersonal skills in schools; thus, state leaders should capitalize and go beyond press releases and jargon language that holds currency in their circles and meet families and caregivers where they are. With more effective communication comes more understanding and support of social-emotional learning and social-emotional data use.
Rachel Anderson
Rachel Anderson is director of policy and practice at the Data Quality Campaign. Rachel leads DQC’s work to foster an effective role for the federal government in supporting education data use. She convenes and collaborates with partners and policymakers to analyze and develop constructive education data legislation at all levels. Rachel’s work focuses on student data privacy, federal policy, ...

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