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date: 23 September 2018

Social Emotional Learning and Inclusion in Schools

Summary and Keywords

Inclusive classrooms provide new opportunities for group membership and creation of effective learning environments. In order to facilitate the success of inclusion as an approach and philosophy, it is important that all class members as well as their teachers develop the skills to understand one another, and to communicate and work together effectively. Social emotional learning (SEL) is aimed at developing these skills and is generally defined to involve processes by which individuals learn to understand and moderate their own feelings, understand the feelings of others, communicate, resolve conflicts effectively, respect others, and develop healthy relationships. These skills are important to both children with disabilities and to those without, in terms of overall social development, perceptions of belonging, and promotion of overall mental wellness, as well as mitigation of the development of mental illness. Research suggests that SEL programming has the potential to effectively enhance children’s academic, social, and relational outcomes. Moreover, teachers who teach SEL in their classrooms have also demonstrated positive outcomes. Despite these encouraging findings, implementation of SEL has been hampered by some limitations, including the lack of a consistent definition—a limitation that in turn affects research findings; lack of teacher education in SEL, which erodes confidence in the fidelity of implementation; and concerns that current SEL programs are not sensitive to cultural differences in communities. Together, the strengths and limitations of SEL illuminate several policy implications regarding the most advantageous ways for SEL to contribute to the success of inclusion in classrooms and schools.

Keywords: Social emotional learning, positive mental health, inclusive learning communities, school-based programs, belonging, teacher education

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Although there is no universally accepted definition of social emotional learning (SEL) (Hoffman, 2009), it is generally agreed upon that social emotional learning is the acquisition of core competencies including one’s ability to recognize and regulate one’s own emotions, set and achieve goals, recognize the emotions and perspectives of others, constructively manage interpersonal situations including problem-solving and conflict resolution, and maintain positive relationships with others (Elias et al., 1997). Copious research has documented that children’s social emotional competence is an important aspect of their overall well-being and school success (Ashdown & Bernard, 2012; Davis, Solberg, DeBaca, & Gore, 2014; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; McKown, Gumbiner, Russo, & Lipton, 2009). Children with well-developed social emotional skills exhibit pro-social behavioral choices including decreased bullying (Frey, Hirschstein, Snell, Edstrom, MacKenzie, & Broderick, 2005) that are associated with greater levels of peer acceptance (Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993), as well as higher levels of overall academic achievement (DiPerna & Elliot, 2002; Durlak et al., 2011). In contrast, poor social emotional skills in children are associated with negative outcomes such as peer rejection (Vitaro, Gagnon, & Tremblay, 1990), dropping out of school (Ensminger & Slusarick, 2002), and violence toward peers and teachers (Espalage et al., 2013).

Prevalence and Costs

Ashdown and Bernard (2012) showed that only 40% of the children entering school have the social emotional skills necessary to be successful in kindergarten. Furthermore, research has documented an increase in social emotional problems in school-aged children (Garner, Mahatmya, Brown, & Vesely, 2014), and mental health issues in school-aged and post-secondary students have become significant concerns (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors [AUCCCD], 2012-2013; Santos, 2012). Thus, SEL programming has a multi-pronged goal set in that it seeks to develop the social emotional competencies of all children so that they can work and learn together, while at the same time it seeks to both mitigate the development of mental illness and to create inclusive settings for children who are experiencing mental illness. According to Santos (2012), for the first time in over 50 years, the world-wide prevalence of children’s mental health diagnoses has surpassed those of physical injury and illness. Furthermore, the annual direct and indirect costs of mental illness have surpassed $48.5 billion dollars in Canada (Smetanin et al., 2011), were expected to be $213 billion dollars in the United States in 2014 (Levit et al., 2008), and according to Smith (2011) the annual cost of treating mood disorders alone in Europe is €113.4 billion. In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated the global cost of mental illness in 2010 to be $2.5 trillion dollars. Accordingly, Greenberg, Domitrovich, and Bumbarger (2001) suggested that in order to reduce levels of mental illness in children, early preventative interventions are necessary, and furthermore these interventions must be broadly accessible to children who may not have access to regular medical treatment. Awareness of these important findings and recommendations has resulted in a plethora of school-based social emotional learning programs (Garner et al., 2014) aimed at maximizing social emotional learning while concurrently reducing the risks of maladaptive behaviors and mental health problems (Greenberg et al., 2001). Advocates of social emotional learning initiatives in schools have suggested that these programs are an important measure that will effectively respond to the diversity of social emotional development needs in inclusive school settings.

Theorizing SEL and Mental Wellness

The theoretical underpinnings of SEL programming come from a variety of scholars within the fields of medicine, psychology, and education. Salovey and Mayer (1990) coined the term “Emotional Intelligence” and defined it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (p. 189). Based on Salovey and Mayer’s work, perhaps the more well-known theory of social emotional learning was then put forward by Daniel Goleman (2005) and his colleagues at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Goleman (2005) introduced the concept of emotional intelligence, and the CASEL model based on it includes “five inter-related sets of cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies” including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013, p. 10). These five competencies include components of social and emotional development well documented in the research to influence aspects of both academic success and mental health as youth develop, such as belonging, self-worth, self-efficacy, and citizenship (McMahon, Wernsman, & Rose, 2009; Pinxten, De Fraine, Van Damme, & DʼHaenens, 2010).

A second theoretical basis of SEL relates to issues of belonging in diverse school settings. In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1993), Freire theorized that the alienation of youth may be the single biggest factor in school leaving, disengagement, and the achievement gap (McInerney, 2009). Freire suggested that because in traditional schooling students have little power over their learning, the content of the learning has little relevance to their lives and aspirations. Furthermore, students with disabilities, as well as those within cultural and sexual orientation minorities, are devalued or marginalized, resulting in youths who are likely to engage in acts of resistance or withdraw their assent altogether from schooling. In schools with a deficit view of students and teacher-centered instruction that expects passive listening and conformity from students, rather than giving them voice, choice, and the belief that they are capable of having an impact on the world, students often “succumb to a sense of fatalism. Enveloped in a culture of silence, they come to accept that this is the way things are meant to be and they lose their transformative capacities” (McInerney, 2009, p. 26), and thus, disengage. An alternative vision of schooling is offered through the basic theories and values of inclusive education and SEL that are intended instead to draw in marginalized populations, move away from deficit models of students, and focus on developing student autonomy, self-regulation, and academic self-efficacy (Allred, 2014; Butler, & Winne, 1995). Thus, the issue of belonging versus alienation arises as critical in the development of mental health, student engagement, academic achievement, and of course, inclusivity (Lester, Waters, & Cross, 2013).

Keyes (2005) expanded on the dimensions of social emotional learning with the dual-continuum model that operationalized the World Health Organization’s recognition in 2004 that mental health is not simply an absence of mental illness, but rather “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (p. 12). Keyes (2005) showed that data supports the existence of two distinct continua (mental illness, and mental wellness) and identified 13 “symptoms” of mental wellness, including self-acceptance, social integration, and positive relationships with others. Similar to the process of using specific criteria for diagnoses of mental illness, Keyes (2005) proposed that individuals must exhibit at least 7 of 13 “symptoms of hedonia or emotional vitality” and “positive functioning” to be diagnosed as “flourishing in life” (p. 540). Furthermore, he proposed that under this new understanding of mental health, intervention programs must focus not only on decreasing the prevalence of mental illness, but also focus on helping individuals flourish (Keyes, 2002) and achieve a mental health state that includes “high levels of emotional, psychological, and social well-being” (Keyes, 2005, p. 539). Thus, the focus of social emotional learning expanded beyond the original five components to address the larger goal of developing both the skills needed to flourish as well as those required to mitigate mental illness.

The Role of SEL in Inclusion

In 1994, representatives of 92 nations gathered in Salamanca, Spain, to discuss inclusive education under the umbrella of the United Nations (UNESCO, 1994). The resulting Salamanca Statement based its philosophy on the right to an education for all children. The framework adopted a guiding principle that schools . . .

should accommodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic, or other conditions. This should include disabled and gifted children, street and working children, children from remote and or nomadic

populations, children from linguistic, ethnic, or cultural minorities and children from other disadvantaged or marginalized areas or groups.

(p. 6)

The Salamanca Statement further recognized “the necessity and urgency of providing education for children, youth, and adults with special educational needs within the regular education system” (UNESCO, 1994, p. viii). The delegates created an action plan to address this need, including stating that “those children with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child centered pedagogy capable of meeting these needs” (p. viii) The delegates asserted,

regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost effectiveness of the entire education system.”

(p. viii)

The Salamanca Statement compelled countries to implement inclusive education for all learners. However, it did not clearly define what was meant by the term “inclusion.” Initially, inclusion was often seen to be accomplished through physical placement of students with disabilities in general education classrooms, but clearly, more is involved (Shyman, 2015). Achieving education for all and an “effective education” requires academic opportunities related to curricula, and the opportunity to be a part of classroom dialogue and learning activities (Lee, Soukup, Little, & Wehmeyer, 2008). Beyond academics, it is clear the Salamanca Statement was reaching for a more holistic vision of inclusion—as it referred not just to children with disabilities but to all children, and not just to academic achievement but to social and emotional skills. “[Schools should] offer training in skills which respond to the social and communication demands and expectations of adult life” (UNESCO, 1994, p. 10). If students are to develop skills related to effective communication and the demands of adult life such as collaborative and collegial work required for the workplace, and relationship skills, empathy, and the emotional regulation necessary for personal relationships, SEL programming will be required.

Perhaps as a result, definitions of inclusion from around the world appear to have expanded to include these same key components: (a) placement of all students in general education classrooms; (b) access to general curriculum and learning; (c) opportunities for meaningful participation, peer interactions, and social and emotional support and well-being. These qualities appear in definitions from such disparate places as the United States (Shyman, 2015), Sweden (Göransson & Nilholm, 2014), Russia (Liubavina, 2014), India (Hodkinson & Devarakonda, 2009), and Canada (Sokal & Katz, 2015). For instance, Göransson and Nilholm (2014), reviewed definitions of inclusion and found four ascending levels of definitions,

(A) Placement definition—inclusion as placement of pupils with disabilities/in need of special support in general education classrooms (B) Specified individualized definition—inclusion as meeting the social/academic needs of pupils with disabilities/pupils in need of special support (C) General individualized definition—inclusion as meeting the social/academic needs of all pupils (D) Community definition—inclusion as creation of communities with specific characteristics (which could vary between proposals).

(p. 268)

Clearly, if the goal of the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994, p. viii) is “combating discriminatory attitudes,” “creating welcoming communities,” and “building an inclusive society,” the impetus is towards the highest level of definition in Göransson and Nilholm’s study. The definition of community in this context is said to involve “equity, care, justice, honoring of subjugated knowledge, and valuing diversity” (Göransson & Nilholm, 2014 p. 270), all social and emotional concepts.

Thus, true inclusion involves all students in the social and academic life of the classroom and school. As the journey toward inclusion progresses, children of the same age are entering classrooms around the world with differing learning strengths and challenges, background knowledge, cultures, languages, and experiences (Karangwa, Miles, & Lewis, 2010; Mowat, 2010; Schirmer & Casbon, 1995). Learning in the 21st century takes place in diverse communities, students interact with their teachers, collaborate with diverse peers, and bring with them the values and teachings of their families. For students to develop the skills to communicate effectively, learn, and interact with diverse others in a global world, SEL programming that teaches empathy, perspective taking, respect for diversity, leadership skills, and more will need to be integrated throughout the school experience (Katz & Porath, 2011).

The Promise of SEL in Inclusive Classrooms and Schools

Responding to diversity. As classrooms become more diverse as a result of inclusion, the need to ensure that children develop pro-social and emotional skills and can create positive peer relationships in these settings becomes essential. However, global concerns continue to rise regarding high rates of school violence, bullying, dropping out, suicide, and other negative behaviors (Kawabata, Crick, & Hamaguchi, 2010; Liang, Flisher, & Lombard, 2007; McCombs, 2004; Zins & Elias, 2006). Concurrent with rises in these behaviors are rising concerns with children’s social and emotional well-being, evidenced by increasing rates of depression, emotion-related illnesses, and expressions of fear and hopelessness (Cluver, Bowes, & Gardner, 2010; Hymel, Schonert-Reichl, & Miller, 2006; Modrcin-McCarthy & Dalton, 1996), again suggesting that heathy communities need to address both social emotional skills as well as mental illness in order to foster mental well-being (Keyes, 2005). Social and emotional learning programs that focus on developing protective factors and pro-social behaviors have been shown to reduce depressive symptoms (Biegel, Brown, Shapiro, & Schubert, 2009), and improve inclusivity and respect for diverse others (Katz, 2013).

Impacts on bullying. Unfortunately, many students in Canada and around the world continue to struggle mentally, socially, and emotionally. Of particular concern are the bullying behaviors that occur in classrooms around the world. Approximately 20% of children and adolescents, well over 800,000 children in Canada, experience bullying and mental health problems severe enough to warrant mental health services (Kutcher & Davidson, 2007; Romano, Tremblay, Vitaro, Zoccolillo, & Pagani, 2001), a number that parallels findings in other countries (Cheng et al., 2010; Nansel, Craig, Overpeck, Saluja, & Ruan, 2004). The impact of bullying is multi-directional: Bullying harms the person who is bullying others as well as the recipients. Children who bully others have been found to be at increased risk of delinquency, depression, and suicidal ideation (Klomek, Marrocco, Kleinman, Schonfeld, & Gould, 2007; Winsper, Lereya, Zanarini, & Wolke, 2012). Bullying victims have lower academic achievement scores, fewer relationships, higher rates of mental illness, and they are at increased risk of suicide and early school leaving (Juvonen, Wang, & Espinoza, 2011; Troop-Gordon & Gerardy, 2012; Young-Jones, Fursa, Byrket, & Sly, 2014). Moreover, the effects of bullying are long lasting—college students who have been victims of bullying during their school years show lower academic motivation and achievement and feelings of competence, even when the bullying has long since ceased (Young-Jones et al., 2014). The implementation of SEL programs can reduce both bullying and victim behaviors (Domino, 2013), thus attention to the development of social emotional learning, in particular emotional regulation, conflict resolution skills, and relationship maintenance skills, are essential to successful inclusive classroom communities.

Impacts on trauma and mental health. Studies in epigenetics and brain plasticity have provided additional promise, and questions, for the field of SEL. Research has indicated that because of the ongoing plasticity of brain development, the building of healthy peer and staff relationships at school is key to promoting long-term outcomes of health and well-being (Puskar & Bernardo, 2007). Despite early exposure to an environment of risk, brain pathways retain their plasticity to some extent, so an enriched environment in later years can promote well-being (McEwen & Gianaros, 2010; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002; Sokolowski et al., 2013). Perhaps as a result, social emotional learning programs have been shown to impact well-being (Cane & Oland, 2014). With the knowledge that students whose parents have experienced trauma, or who have experienced trauma themselves can be impacted in terms of wellness, learning, and brain structure and function (Essex et al., 2013), the importance of programming in preventative mental health areas rises significantly.

Academic impacts on students. In addition to the direct effects of social emotional learning on factors such as bullying and trauma recovery, inclusive educators must pay attention to the social and emotional influences on academic learning. Neurocognitive research investigating the links between emotions and learning has demonstrated that for students to learn, the diversity of their needs must be recognized and classrooms created that address social and emotional well-being and belonging (CASEL, 2016). According to Hertzman (2012), “Developmental systems theory is now the dominant paradigm in understanding children’s development, and it is also now well established that the early experiences of children become biologically embedded, that is, experiences influence biological development” (as cited in Nelson, Kendall, & Shields, 2013, p. 241). Youths who experience chronic stress incur changes in the structure and function of areas of the brain that impact their ability to regulate emotions, process information, and remember (McEwen & Gianaros, 2010). Cognitive functions, including specific neurocognitive processes such as the ability to pay attention, retain in memory, and process language are all mediated by social, emotional, and mental health factors (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007; Schwabe & Wolf, 2010). With rising rates of anxiety and stress in youths (Twenge et al., 2010), it is no wonder teachers are reporting rising rates of students’ inability to pay attention, retain information, or interact positively with peers and teachers (DuPaul, Reid, Anastopoulos, & Power, 2014; Fabiano et al., 2013). Thus, social and emotional issues will continue to contribute to barriers to learning for youths around the world unless successful SEL programming is implemented. Indeed, the ability to learn is impacted by the joy associated with the experience of learning and the relational environment of school. “Involvement, motivation, self-esteem, hope, play, and the positive emotions experienced with the grasp of new concepts, all facilitate plasticity and learning supported by positive emotions” (Nelson et al., 2013, p. 245). It should come as no surprise then that SEL programs have been shown to impact academic achievement, even at the college level, including improving scores on standardized exams (Wang, Wilhite, Wyatt, Young, Bloemker, & Wilhite, 2012; Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2007). Thus, even when considering academic outcomes alone, inclusive, socially and emotionally supportive classroom environments support positive outcomes for students.

Impacts of SEL on teachers. Although the focus of social emotional learning is on its effects on students, research has shown that implementing SEL programming in their classrooms can have both direct and indirect positive impacts on the teachers who teach these types of programs. Teachers who have implemented SEL demonstrated lower levels of stress (Collie et al., 2012; Lantieri, Nagler-Kyse, Harnett, & Malmus, 2011), and those with greater comfort in implementing SEL showed greater general professional commitment to teaching (Collie, Shapka, & Perry, 2011), together suggesting that “implementation of SEL nurtures teachers’ own well-being” (Collie et al., 2011, p. 1045). Teachers who have well-developed social emotional skills demonstrate greater enjoyment of teaching, and feel more self-efficacy (Goddard, Hoy, & Woolfolk-Hoy, 2004). SEL programs that reduce challenging behavior and improve achievement in the classroom are likely to further reduce teacher stress, given that student behavior and failure have long been known to impact teacher well-being (Schaubman, Stetson, & Plog, 2011). These findings are significant, as many teachers worldwide experience high levels of stress that are the main reasons for career dissatisfaction and leaving (Brackenreed, 2011; Montgomery & Rupp, 2005; Katz, 2014), and stressed teachers tend to have more conflictual and less warm relationships with students (Jones et al., 2013). Moreover, these conflictual relationships are also associated with lower student engagement and achievement (Raver, Jones, Li-Grining, Metzger, Champion, & Sardon, 2008). When teachers and students learn about SEL and take part in its programs, teacher stress is lowered and poor, conflictual relationships between student and teacher are mitigated. Clearly, when adults teach and practice SEL skills with their students, reciprocal benefits occur.

Teachers as Change Agents

One cannot be included if one does not belong. Noddings, in her work on “Ethics of Care” (1984) explicated the impact of relationships on teaching and learning. Despite power differentials, teachers and students impact each other’s engagement and self-efficacy through their relating. Higher levels of belonging improve children’s well-being and reduce the chances of future substance abuse, anxiety, and depressive symptoms (Bond et al., 2007). Furthermore, positive relationships with teachers, instruction in resiliency and distress tolerance methods, and positive classroom climates can mitigate these negative impacts (Konishi, Hymel, Zumbo, & Li, 2010). Teachers, therefore, have the power to include the excluded, through paying attention to unique needs, and responding with an ethic of care. “Findings suggest a temporal sequence between positive feelings toward school as a protective mechanism for poor future mental health” (Lester, Waters, & Cross, 2013, p. 159). Indeed, research investigations have indicated that schools are effective socialization contexts in our culture, and hold great influence in guiding social and emotional learning (Schonert-Reichl & Hymel, 2007). Teachers can effectively facilitate children’s social and emotional learning via classroom and school-based intervention efforts (Durlak & Weissberg, 2007; Graczyk et al., 2000; Greenberg, Domitrovich, & Bumbarger, 2001), and teachers are therefore essential partners in building inclusive classrooms that truly celebrate diversity, and allow all students to learn and grow together as was the vision put forward in the Salamanca Statement.

Types of SEL Programs

SEL programs can be differentiated in several ways. First, programs can be divided by intended audience—those that target specific populations based on perceived risk or need, and universal programs delivered to all students. Second, programs can be divided by scope—those that target a specific aspect of SEL, and those that attempt to develop all or most of the SEL competencies. These categories are theoretically driven by two meta-theoretical orientations drawn from developmental psychopathology: the risk factor and the protective factor approach (Reicher, 2010). Risk factors (such as the lack of a positive relationship with an important adult) are characteristics that put students “at risk” for future social, emotional, and academic problems. Programs aimed at reducing risk factors often target specific student populations, such as those aimed specifically at bullies, students with social skills deficits, or programs such as Upward Bound intended for students from low socio-economic backgrounds thought to face challenges in graduating (Walsh, 2011). Protective factors, on the other hand, such as the ability to regulate emotions are associated with decreased likelihood of problematic outcomes. There are over 200 individually recognized SEL programs currently being used in schools, and their design, implementation, and goals vary greatly (Durlak et al., 2011). Programs aimed at developing protective factors are most often classroom based, and universally implemented such as Roots of Empathy (Santos, Chartier, Whalen, Chateau, & Boyd, 2011) or the Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning program (Katz, 2012). Roots of Empathy is an example of a universally delivered, targeted program—it seeks to develop empathy and is implemented with all students in the classroom. The Three-Block Model program, on the other hand, is a universally delivered broad scope program, aimed at developing self-awareness, self-worth, belonging, positive classroom climate, and valuing of diversity.

Outcomes of SEL—Claims and Criticisms

Criticism of SEL programming and research revolves around four issues. One of the perennial issues surrounding SEL is a lack of a consistent conceptual definition (Hoffman, 2009). Hoffman observed that SEL has been used as an umbrella term to encompass a wide variety of approaches and outcomes, and it therefore follows that there is a lack of consistency in research findings about such an ill-defined construct. While there is agreement about the general idea of SEL, there exists a “fair degree of ambiguity and conceptual confusion” within the research literature (Hoffman, 2009, p. 535). Although CASEL clearly defined the five competencies, other groups and individuals have used the term SEL as synonymous with other general terms such as social and emotional competency or development, and specific terms such as empathy and self-awareness. This ambiguity can lead to confusion in the research base, as various programs are actually targeting and measuring different constructs.

Some critics’ concerns relate to the research base itself, including an apparent lack of high-quality evaluation; the lacuna of replication research conducted by independent, third-party researchers; and the lack of follow-up research to determine the long-term effects of SEL interventions (Greenberg et al., 2001; Hoffman, 2009). Haergerich and Metz (2009) suggested that there is a lack of evaluation of SEL programs that have “rigorous methodology, design, and analysis [and that some studies exhibit] lack of randomization to condition, small sample size and low statistical power, severe attrition, and inappropriate levels of analysis” (p. 6). Furthermore, the SEL programs they reviewed that did exhibit high quality, rigorous methodology, design, and analysis failed to support consistent significant effects of SEL programs on the targeted outcomes (for examples, increases in pro-social behavior and social competence, and decreases in aggression), and Hoffman (2009) therefore suggested that this lack of evidence may mean that the “dramatic claims for SEL are unsubstantiated” (p. 526). She posited that although there is substantial evidence that children’s social-emotional development is clearly linked to their school adaptation and performance, there is as yet insufficient evidence to suggest that SEL programs can promote this desired development. This is a critical separation. Both critics and supporters agree that SEL impacts both well-being and achievement. What is in dispute is whether evidence exists that the programs cited in some of the SEL literature can address students’ social and emotional learning in significant ways. This issue may in part be due to the previously noted conflation of definitions of SEL. Meta-analyses that measure outcomes of SEL programs include those that are aimed at a specific construct, for example violence prevention, and they are lumped in with universal programs aimed at larger constructs such as relationship management, and then fail to show outcomes for results that these specific programs were never intended to address. In turn, the analyses showing positive results can be questioned for the same reasons. More recently, randomized control trial research, with large populations over several years that focused on assessing outcomes for specific programs, and measured only those outcomes the programs target have been done, and have shown positive outcomes for these programs (for example, Crooks et al., 2015; Ottmar, Rimm-Kaufman, Larsen, & Berry, 2015). Meta-analysis of 213 “rigorous studies of SEL in schools” (CASEL, 2016) indicated that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated improved academic performance, reduced emotional distress, and fewer negative behaviors. Student engagement increased, as did pro-social behaviors. Note however, the term “quality.” If programs are not high quality, if they are not implemented with fidelity, and if there is no operationalization of the construct such that researchers can replicate, corroborate, and triangulate data, the field will remain in question. Given the critical need to address student mental health and SEL, this trend toward clarity and appropriate design in the research is heartening.

A third area of concern is the lack of teacher education and capacity (Rose, Howley, Fergusson, & Jament, 2009). Although Durlak et al. (2011) found that teachers were capable of implementing successful SEL programming, other research suggests that teachers lack their own social-emotional development and that this factor makes it difficult for them to implement effective SEL programming for children (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). Furthermore, teachers have expressed concern about stress (Jones, Bouffard, & Weissbourd, 2013), and this stress may be exacerbated by the expectation that they will add another program to an already full curriculum. Jones et al., (2013) posited that teachers’ own SEL could influence their students in three ways: (a) through the relationships they form with students; (b) through the behaviors they model to students; and (c) through the classroom management strategies they implement. Given that teacher education in SEL pedagogy is not a wide-spread requirement (Jones et al., 2013; Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013), caution about teachers’ abilities to implement effective programming is wise. Until recently SEL program evaluations in general often failed to investigate the fidelity of implementation by teachers (Greenberg et al., 2001), and those studies that did look at this variable found that teachers demonstrated poor fidelity in implementing SEL programs in their classrooms (Durlak et al., 2011). In studies where fidelity was maintained, and student well-being impacted, teacher well-being also improved (Katz, 2014). Considering Noddings (1984) and others’ work regarding the bidirectional relational aspects of teaching, this outcome could be expected. However, ensuring teachers are adequately prepared to implement SEL programming with fidelity is an essential prerequisite of these outcomes.

The fourth criticism of SEL programming is perhaps the most difficult to resolve. In-school SEL programming has been criticized for its lack of cultural and ethnic sensitivity within diverse classrooms (Hoffman, 2009), and as a result, programs have been developed that explicitly aim to address this deficit (CASEL, 2005) and have demonstrated some success (Garner et al., 2014). In doing so, however, a conundrum is created. In trying to be sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity, some programs have created categorical, stereotype-based expectations of various cultural groups (Hoffman, 2009). While these programs should be lauded for attempting to reconcile the lack of sensitivity to cultural and ethnic diversity found in some SEL programs, they fail to do so when they create false categories that cannot and do not respond to diversity within cultural groups in addition to those between them. This dilemma is challenging, as it evokes larger philosophical questions about the most appropriate responses to diversity and inclusion.

Policy Implications

Given the potential for SEL to make a significant contribution to the well-being and mental wellness of school-aged children and in turn decrease the prevalence of mental illness over the lifespan, policy makers have the opportunity to harness this potential through an evidence-based, broad-based approach. The best ways to implement SEL within schools have been disputed within the research literature, although a convergence of evidence suggests that some policy directions are supported regarding universal implementation, step-by-step interventions, and culturally and ethnically responsive programs.

Universal interventions are defined by Greenberg et al. (2001) as those that target general populations rather than members of those populations who are identified by either risk factor group membership or as individuals. In general, researchers have agreed that universal programs are generally effective (Durlak et al., 2011). They suggested that universal SEL interventions afford several advantages. First, while it could be argued that universal interventions allocate the majority of resources to children with no mental health pathology, those children do benefit from opportunities for greater overall mental health and social competence. In this way, universal approaches are aimed at both decreasing mental illness and fostering mental wellness as proposed in Keyes’ dual-continuum model (2005). Furthermore, inclusive classroom settings are defined by their greater diversity, and in order for inclusion to work, all members of the classroom communities need to develop effective social emotional skills including skills in emotional regulation, communication, and conflict resolution that allow them to work and learn together. Second, Durlak (1995) argued that while only 8% of children without mental illness will grow up to be adults with mental issues as compared with 30% of children with mental illness, in actual numbers there will be 50% more adults with mental illness originating from the former group than the latter given the relative number of individuals in each group. Given that we are not able to predict all of the seemingly healthy children who may develop mental illness later in life, it seems wise to develop protective factors for all of our youth. Pianta (2006), argued that schools play an important role in the delivery of mental health services for children and summarized the research in saying, “Clearly the linkage between schooling and mental health is moving beyond add-on programs and social skills groups toward more complete integration at the conceptual and operational levels” (2006, p. 498). Together, these observations suggest that school-based, universal approaches to social emotional learning are the most appropriate and beneficial approach.

A second policy consideration revolves around the best ways to ensure SEL skills are taught at schools. One way to do so is to proactively plan SEL outcome standards for implementation alongside academic outcome standards, as is the case in Illinois (Durlak et al., 2011). In general, research suggests that step-by-step programs can be effective in fostering the desired outcome standards (Durlak et al., 2011). Moreover, Durlak et al. (2011) offered the acronym SAFE (sequenced, active, focused, and explicit) to describe effective SEL programming toward this goal. However, the aforementioned criticisms of the quality of program evaluations, lack of consistency in agreement on SEL as a construct, and concerns about teacher education undermine confidence in this recommendation. We join other researchers who have suggested that more high quality, rigorous research is necessary in order to tighten up the definition of SEL and in turn to create more convincing evidence about the best ways to reach the intended SEL outcomes in schools. Furthermore, we support calls for mandatory teacher education about SEL, with the view that teachers who are educated about SEL and demonstrate their own social-emotional competence will be better prepared to delivery high-quality SEL programming to students (Hoffman, 2009; Jones et al., 2013).

Our final policy recommendation relates to SEL as a component of each child within his or her own ecosystem, including the sociocultural expectations of the school as well as children’s families and communities (Garner et al., 2014). We encourage the development and evaluation of programs that extend beyond classrooms and schools and involve those within the other systems of children’s lives. Garner et al. (2014) have proposed that culturally congruent SEL interventions exhibit one or more strategies for infusing sociocultural values and characteristics. These include: peripheral, sociocultural, evidential, linguistic, and constituent-involving processes. Further research into these promising approaches may resolve the dilemma about the best ways to design and implement culturally and ethnically responsive SEL programming. In this way, not only will parents and the broader community become more engaged in the school-based SEL programming, but programs may become more culturally and ethnically responsive, fostering opportunities for connections between mesosystem members (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) where true inclusion may flourish.


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