How Should K-12 Educators Select and Evaluate Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum?

STAY in Social Emotional Learning SEL

By: Dr. Yorel Lashley

Introduction: Mobilizing Social-Emotional Learning Toward Vitality

When I observe classrooms, I don’t look for compliance or assume that just because a class is quiet and orderly that students are engaged. I look for vitality—structure and commitment to protecting everyone’s safety, learning, and joy. This requires agreements and social contracts that prescribe positive adult and student behaviors and action.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the global protests to protect and value Black lives have facilitated a greater collective commitment and critical awareness to ensure that students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) needs be a more explicit focus in all learning contexts. Many educators were working toward these goals prior to the pandemic, but the isolation and disconnection felt by students and families—especially those with limited technology access—focused the masses on the need for SEL like never before.

How do we leverage this widespread interest for transformative SEL to help and empower educators to empower students?

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

SEL means equipping ourselves to be whole people who have a healthy, functional awareness of ourselves and meaningful connections to others. Through these connections, we can make positive contributions to our communities and have power over our lives. It’s really what many of us agree all education should do.

Educators must reclaim SEL as a necessarily integrated aspect of all learning—it is not an “extra” thing to do. For example, students require focus to learn math, and their focus is facilitated by the confidence derived from feeling committed to their own learning. The sources of commitment are often the goals students have for themselves: feeling safety and belonging, the ability and desire to persevere, and the willingness to engage in risk-taking. Each learning context should be a space where students build and practice social-emotional skills.

(For more on this topic, read “Eight Ways to Empower Youth Through Social-Emotional Learning.”)

SEL Must be Culturally Relevant

In her book, “The Dreamkeepers,” Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings offered that culturally relevant teaching is maintained by student culture and transcends the negative effects of the dominant culture. If we apply Dr. Ladson-Billings’ definition to the implementation of SEL, selecting and translating broader SEL competencies requires us to connect them to students’ life experiences, interests, values, personal goals, language, and meanings they understand. In short, we must engage students as knowledge and culture experts.

Culture is what students bring with them and who they are. Every student has culture, which can be comprised of youth interests (hip hop for example), ethnic backgrounds, communities, histories, and experiences, to name a few. In building an SEL-based learning environment, we make space for cultures to live—spaces that nurture culture like a plant with consistency and routines, not through show and tell activities once or twice. Learning is relevant when it is applicable and it is applicable when students can see, experience, and determine how it facilitates the goals they have for themselves. Culturally relevant teaching leads to engagement and ultimately vitality.

Integrating SEL Throughout Instruction

Developing and integrating SEL requires that superintendents, teachers, administrators, community educators, and students STAY in a reflection-driven process.

(S)elect SEL skills and competencies.

(T)ranslate skills and competencies into language, routines, plans, and community commitments.

(A)ctions. SEL comes to life through student and teacher actions.

(Y)outh Empowerment. SEL empowers students to drive learning and shape their lives.

STAY Framework

Social-Emotional Learning in Action: The Drum Power Example

To illustrate what integrated SEL looks like, I offer the case of Drum Power, a youth drumming program I founded in 2001. For me, centering the whole child meant providing a space to practice and learn life skills through developing drumming skills. 

When I started Drum Power, I initially had a list of approximately 20 youth development outcomes. I always asked students how they wanted to feel and be treated in class and what they thought was necessary to create a sense of community to support our work. After many years, we settled on the pillars of discipline, community, and leadership. The evolution of each pillar has been unique to my experiences with students and unique to the way we work in Drum Power. Thus, yours, too, will likely be unique to what and how you teach.

Selecting SEL competencies and translating them as a community is an iterative process toward empowerment. It starts with finding shared experience-based meanings and defining shared commitments that tie all the life skills to our work and actions as individuals and community members. Connecting these meanings and commitments to the goals students have for themselves elevates the work to student empowerment. At Drum Power, we challenge students to be the architects of their own plans to address the following questions:

  • Who do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to be for yourself and for those you care about?
  • What are you doing to get there? What are you doing now, and more importantly, what are you going to do from this day forward?

Pillar One: Discipline

Discipline is a conscious reclamation of the term away from negative connotations. I always ask students what discipline means to them and someone usually says, “When I get in trouble,” and back in the day they would say, “When I get a whoopin’.” We, however, connect it to the old school idea of arts disciplines as a practice in service of skill development and perseverance over time with regular work, growth, and positive energy in the way that music, dance, and visual arts were cultivated disciplines. 

We also apply Michael Yang’s interpretation of Paulo Freire where discipline is a necessary condition for effective action in the social world. In 1998, Freire wrote:

True discipline does not exist in the muteness of those who have been silenced but in the stirrings of those who have been challenged, in the doubt of those who have been prodded, and in the hopes of those who have been awakened.

However, our action-focused, applied definition came from a young drummer who shared that his Karate sensei told him discipline was “using your energy for good things.” Thus, discipline is a pillar that includes several competencies: responsible decision-making, self-management, and self awareness (CASEL) as well as personal goal-setting, self-assessment, and monitoring self-progress that are unique to Drum Power.

Pillar Two: Community

Community is the translation of social awareness and relationship skills that is centered on what students bring with them from their communities and homes and then positively reinforces it. Students always know what communities are and do. They know what they contribute to their communities as well as what they receive in return. They know, from experience, the ways those dynamics play out as empathy, self-sacrifice, and reliance on others. The actionable definition we use in our classroom context is “supporting my own learning and the learning of others.”

Pillar Three: Leadership

Discipline and community alone are sufficient to create rich spaces to practice SEL and learn academic skills for immediate and future use. However, in order to provide a space to build and support student agency through critical thinking and self-confidence, I translated those concepts into leadership or “doing the right thing, especially when no one is watching and even if I have to do so by myself.”

This definition of leadership was also a response to models of extrinsic motivation whereby students are offered praise or prizes (external motivation) rather than being allowed to embrace and practice wanting to be their best selves (internal motivation). Leadership is a concept that lives in learning, sports, communities, churches, schools, and most careers.

The selection of discipline, community, and leadership as pillars for Drum Power was also an explicit choice to use language that is familiar to students when they are young that will still be present when they grow into adults.

Conclusion: What does successful application of SEL look like for students?

This model of SEL integration engages students to feel empowered in the classroom context because they can see and feel how it benefits them beyond the classroom. Success is characterized by self-efficacy—what Albert Bandura described as a combination of what we are able to do and what we believe we can do. The following outcome-based questions can guide educators’ initial thinking about the effectiveness of their SEL implementation:

  • Are students feeling powerful and using that power for good in ways that they are expressing in obvious and subtle ways?
  • Are students helpful, kind, and empathetic toward one another?
  • Are students expressing their own ideas and running the class?

Learn More

For more information about integrating SEL into all components of teaching and learning, PLACE offers an asynchronous course for K-12 educators, Building the Social-Emotional Learning or SEL Classroom.