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Teachers Endorse Social-Emotional Lessons; But Subject Lacks Priority

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A majority of teachers say it's very important for schools to work on developing students' social and emotional skills, results from a new nationally representative survey show.

The survey results, released Wednesday, also show that a majority of teachers believe that improving students' social and emotional skills will help them do well in school and prepare them for the workforce.

But, says the Missing Piece report, commissioned by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, despite the high regard teachers have for social and emotional learning, teaching and promoting these skills isn't enough of a priority in schools.

"The time has passed to debate whether schools should make [social and emotional learning] a central focus. Now we must act to ensure our students and teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in school, work, and life," the report says.

To be clear, the report defines social and emotional learning as

  • Self-awareness, like knowing your strengths and limitations;
  • Self-management, like being able to stay in control and persevere through challenges;
  • Social awareness, like understanding and empathizing with others;
  • Relationship skills, like being able to work in teams and resolve conflicts; and
  • Responsible decision-making, like making ethical and safe choices.

So if teachers endorse teaching these skills—93 percent of those surveyed said the skills are at least fairly or very important—why aren't more students being exposed to these kinds of lessons?

The report offers several examples of places where investing teachers' time in these lessons has been made a priority, including the 150,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school district and the 40,000-student Cleveland, Ohio, school district.

But it also notes that less than half of the 605 teachers surveyed—44 percent—said social and emotional skills are being taught on a schoolwide basis, and a fragmented approach to teaching students about responsible decision-making and building relationships would be more effective.

CASEL argues for better teacher preparation in social and emotional learning, both in teachers colleges and once teachers are working. And 61 percent of teachers say they're interested in learning more about the best practices for teaching these skills.

One vehicle for training could be this bill, which would amend federal law so that money set aside for teacher and principal training could be used specifically for social- and emotional-learning programs.

The organization also says teaching students these lessons must become part of their district's or school's goals. One potentially magical solution could be to integrate these lessons with the Common Core State Standards or other standards a school has adopted. (How's that old saying go? Something like, "What's tested is taught?")

CASEL appreciates efforts like the Race to the Top district competition, which gave districts bonus points for including social and emotional learning components in their applications. But the area could be given more importance than that, the group said.

Also of note: Teachers found the lack of social and emotional lessons especially pronounced at the high school level. Only 28 percent of high school teachers say these skills are taught schoolwide, compared to 43 percent of middle school teachers and 49 percent of prekindergarten and elementary school teachers.

And although the survey found that teaching these kinds of skills is more likely to be emphasized with younger children, they are as important, if not more so, for older students, because of concerns including sexting, bullying, and getting students college-ready.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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