My oldest son began second grade this fall. During a recent visit to the grocery store, he started bickering with his older sister. When I threatened that they’d lose their afternoon treat if they didn’t stop, he became visually upset. So I turned my full attention to calming him down in the middle of the cereal aisle.
“Mom, I can’t calm down my, my…amygdala!”
In the moment, I told my son to take some deep breaths and rushed to finish our shopping. As soon as we got to our car, I Googled “What does the amygdala do?” First, I discovered we have not one—but two—amygdalae. Then I read that our amygdalae are responsible for the emotions we feel and our ability to sense what others are feeling.
There’s a dearth of guidance for teachers when it comes to implementing SEL in evidence-based ways.”
I put two and two together. Clearly my son’s teacher had done some direct instruction on social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies in her classroom. I was simultaneously thrilled that my son’s teacher had applied learning science in her SEL instruction and deflated that my son wasn’t quite sure how to put the information into practice.
The importance of SEL—and effective classroom practices
Across stakeholder groups there is agreement that SEL is a cornerstone of supporting student success. Last spring, a cross section of education policy and research leaders published a seminal report, “From a nation at risk to a nation at hope,” that outlined critical steps for the research, practice, and policy communities to take in fostering social, emotional, and academic well-being for our nation’s students. At the same time, conservative education policy influencers Chester Finn and Rick Hess shared their take in a highly debated blog that outlined seven key strategies for education policy advocates who want to position SEL as a bipartisan pillar of K–12 education in the US.
Given this wide-ranging support for SEL, it’s not surprising that at least 23 states have learning goals articulating what students should be able to do on a social and emotional level from preschool through high school graduation. Yet there’s a dearth of guidance for teachers when it comes to implementing SEL in evidence-based ways.
SEL instruction is particularly challenging because the science of child development, especially in the context of whole child education, tells us that learning requires both teaching and self-perception.”
We need merely look to government action to find proof. Despite the national dialogue on SEL, 2019 brought only 10 enacted SEL education bills. Washington’s SB 5082, for example, created a statewide committee on SEL. This lack of legislation means thousands of schools are applying SEL strategies with little guidance and sometimes haphazardly. Right now, many classroom teachers can do little more than follow the direction of organizations like the Learning Policy Institute. That’s a useful place to start, but educators need more concrete guidance on how to apply SEL practices and programs effectively in their schools.
Metacognition: The secret ingredient for SEL success
SEL instruction is particularly challenging because the science of child development, especially in the context of whole child education, tells us that learning requires both teaching and self-perception. In other words, my son was taught what the amygdala was and had enough self-perception to realize when he was under emotional stress. Unfortunately, he lacked the necessary metacognitive skills to make a choice about what to do next (so he continued bickering with his sister throughout the check-out line and into the parking garage).
Metacognition—the process of thinking about your thinking—is truly the critical ingredient of a successful SEL curriculum.
How to strengthen your SEL curriculum
Here are a few practices connected to metacognition that may help you develop your SEL instruction.
1. Ground your SEL instruction in a theory of learning
Students’ SEL opportunities should be grounded in the science of how people learn and develop. NWEA research on growth mindset, self-efficacy, social awareness, and self-management found that classroom-level contexts, like peer-groups and the learning environment, are likely important for social and emotional development.
For students to make use of new information in ways that will improve their social, emotional, and academic success, SEL must be coupled with explicit instruction about metacognition; it is the ‘so what’ that matters most.”
When applying SEL instruction, consider a few key factors of learning science, like:
- The classroom environment
- Inter- and intrapersonal interactions
- Student mindsets
- Academic learning contexts
As you explore how these features are used in your instructional repertoire, consider the mechanisms you can control that influence students’ context (e.g., flexibility grouping and seating arrangements) and how they can be differentiated based on students’ individual needs.
2. Use explicit instruction to activate your students’ metacognition during learning
In a separate NWEA study on inter- and intrapersonal skills, researchers found that a composite of intrapersonal skills (i.e., skills related to internal development) predicted four-year college enrollment better than a variety of other individual SEL competencies. In other words, the way you communicate in your own head matters just as much—maybe more so—as how you communicate with others.
For students to make use of new information in ways that will improve their social, emotional, and academic success, SEL must be coupled with explicit instruction about metacognition; it is the “so what” that matters most. So in my son’s case, it wasn’t enough for him to learn the word “amygdala” and be able to recite the definition. He also needed to understand that he was having an emotion, an emotion he could influence.
In the classroom, explicit instruction about how to apply metacognitive skills during learning might look like a teacher modeling their own internal thinking and self-reflection during classroom instruction. For example, a teacher could point out a mistake they made, the feelings they had about it, and how they moved on.
3. Engage families
At the core of a cohesive, schoolwide SEL model is a strong system for family engagement. It’s important for families to understand and offer ways to support their students’ social, emotional, and academic learning, including metacognition, at home.
One way to bring families into this effort is to host an informational PTA night on SEL. This type of event should aim to build bridges between the school and home learning environments and elevate the family voice. To center on trusting relationships, staff leading this event should ensure that school personnel are committed to listening and that families have ample opportunities to discuss their perspectives on SEL. To elevate transparency about the different home and school contexts, ask guiding questions about students’ lived experiences, interests, hobbies, and family culture.
Host an informational PTA night on SEL.”
The truth is that SEL is a hot topic today. Policymakers, researchers, teachers, and families can make limitless assumptions about how SEL development can and should be achieved in and out of school.
While achieving clarity and cohesion around best practices for applying and measuring SEL requires an intentional intersection of research and policy agendas, it’s equally important for educators to remain at the center of this work. For my son, who typically values things like sports, storytelling, and humor over academics, SEL development will be a key to his success in school. And it will be shaped by the ways his schools and teachers apply their SEL strategies.
Watch our on-demand webinar on SEL and the difference it can make for English language learners, led by NWEA researcher Dr. Jim Soland, to learn more.