SEL and math: A perfect partnership during COVID-19 school closures and beyond

SEL and math: A perfect partnership during COVID-19 school closures and beyond - TLG-IMG-05122020

The current COVID-19 crisis has brought social-emotional learning (SEL) to the forefront in a new way as districts, teachers, parents, and students deal with anxiety, uncertainty, and the potentially devastating impact of school closures on student achievement.

In a recent study, NWEA researchers Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa predicted that learning loss in math may be greater than in other areas when students return to the physical classroom this fall. If you couple this loss with the math anxiety that so many students already face, incorporating SEL into the math classroom is even more crucial than ever.

SEL: What it is and why it matters

Social-emotional learning has become a regular component of classrooms from pre-schools to high schools. According to a 2018 EdWeek survey, almost 90% of district educators had already invested in SEL-related materials that year, with another 58% intending to do so in 2019. Because SEL is especially important during difficult times, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has made numerous resources available to help educators who have already embraced SEL continue their efforts during distance learning.

What is SEL and why are so many schools embracing it? Simply stated, SEL is about developing the intra- and inter-personal skills that are vital for success in school, the workplace, and society in general. Numerous studies have documented the benefits of SEL, including improvements in academic outcomes, behaviors, and economic mobility.

The power of SEL in the math classroom

While SEL is beneficial in all curricular areas, the five SEL core competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—are natural components of an engaging, process-oriented, problem-rich math classroom. Explicitly incorporating SEL into your math instruction is a great way to both foster a growth mindset and undermine math anxiety.

A 2018 study of fourth and fifth grade students in China found that higher levels of social-emotional competency corresponded to higher levels of math achievement, confidence, and interest in math as well as lower levels of math anxiety. Conversely, students with lower levels of social-emotional competency showed greater math anxiety and lower levels of performance, interest, and confidence. Developing self-efficacy may be particularly important when trying to close the achievement gap for English language learners (ELLs). NWEA researcher Jim Soland examined the connection between self-efficacy and mathematics growth for middle school ELLs and found that lower self-efficacy was associated with slower growth in math for these students.

How to add SEL to your math curriculum

Educators and districts may be convinced of the positive impact of SEL on student outcomes, but as Christine Pitts, policy advisor at NWEA, pointed out in “3 ways to boost your SEL curriculum,” they may still be figuring out how to best incorporate it into their classrooms. Want to see if your math curriculum supports SEL competencies? Check out the evaluation tool published by The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

One powerful way to foster SEL through math is to authentically incorporate mathematical practices into instruction. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) practice standards are habits of mind that perfectly dovetail with social-emotional learning. When presented with a novel problem in a classroom environment in which exploration and collaboration are encouraged, students naturally engage in numerous SEL competencies. Let’s look at how CCSS Mathematical Practice 1, Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, connects to SEL competencies.

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When a student starts the process of solving a worthwhile problem by “explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution,” they are engaging in self-awareness by assessing what they know that is relevant to the problem. They exhibit self-management when planning, monitoring, evaluating, and altering a solution path. Allowing students to share and discuss their approaches promotes social awareness by providing opportunities to take someone else’s perspective. Teachers can model these behaviors for students and explicitly call them out when students engage in them, both in the physical classroom and during distance learning.

Helpful resources

Here are some resources to help you increase the role of SEL in your math class.


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