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History and Background: Social & Emotional Learning

Many elements of social and emotional learning – social skills, character education, emotional intelligence – are older than the term itself. In 1994, a constellation of non-academic skills was termed social and emotional learning by a group of people who formed the Coalition for Academic Social and Emotional Learning – now the Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning, or CASEL, a national organization that promotes the study and implementation of SEL. This marked the beginning of the movement to bring a more standardized approach to defining, studying, and implementing social and emotional learning. 

Since then, social and emotional learning has steadily gained in popularity. In 2011, only one state, Illinois, had adopted SEL standards or benchmarks for K-12 schools. By the end of the decade, that number rose to 18 states, according to CASEL. 

Such policies lay out SEL benchmarks that students should hit by a certain age. For example, in Minnesota, by third grade, students should be able to recognize and label their emotions. In grades 9-12, students should “understand that identities and heritage practices shape the way they view, understand, and interpret emotions.” All 50 states have articulated guidelines for what social and emotional skills students should develop in prekindergarten, according to CASEL.

The coronavirus pandemic brought with it a new surge in interest in SEL as educators, policymakers, and the federal government looked to the concept as a key vehicle to help students recover from trauma and lost learning time. States and districts rushed to bolster their SEL offerings to qualify for federal Covid-19 relief aid from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, which require states to dedicate a certain amount of money to responding to students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs. 

Whether that renewed focus will be sustained is uncertain. In 2015, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama, it passed because the law allowed states to use one nonacademic measure in their plans for how to hold themselves accountable to the new law. This highlighted a point of debate among SEL advocates: While ESSA offered an opportunity to cement SEL in states’ plans for executing the new federal law, many SEL advocates argued that measuring students’ social and emotional skills was still too inexact of a science to be tied to any accountability system. Although the law as a whole places more emphasis on “whole child” issues, ultimately, no state went so far as to include SEL measures in its accountability plans. 

SEL has faced other challenges, even as it has gained considerable traction in U.S. education over the past two decades. 

While all 50 states have adopted SEL competencies for the preschool years, enthusiasm for the idea dwindles the older children get. This perception, that SEL is only for young children, shapes both policy and curricula, even though SEL researchers and advocates say it is misguided and that schools should prioritize teaching social and emotional skills to middle and  high schoolers, and even adults. 

Teacher preparation programs and state licensing requirements have been slow to adapt to growing interest in teaching social and emotional skills, according to a 2017 report prepared by the University of British Columbia for CASEL. While schools may offer professional development in SEL, many teachers enter the profession with little to no preparation on teaching those skills. Required coursework in schools of education on how to teach social and emotional skills was scant, the report found. 

Evidence-based SEL curricula are important to achieving the benefits of SEL found in research, but they can be expensive and complex for schools to implement, experts say. Some researchers have sought to develop more manageable techniques for teaching and integrating SEL into the school day. Some schools and districts have approached this problem by creating their own SEL curricula. 

Social and emotional learning has recently faced criticism that the philosophy behind SEL and much of the curricula that delivers it to schoolchildren do not do enough to address issues of bias and racism in the classroom and society at large, or recognize the barriers and trauma many children face that are beyond their control.