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Social-Emotional Learning Review Aims to Help Secondary Schools Select Programs

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For schools, the decision to focus on the social and emotional learning of their students is just the first step.

The real work kicks in when leaders try to navigate a confusing and still-developing field to select an evidence-based program that will translate the findings of researchers into actual results in the classroom. And that task is especially difficult in secondary schools, where many teachers are subject-oriented and uncomfortable with adopting new approaches and where students are often more cynical and less engaged than their younger peers, principals say.

Hoping to help secondary schools in selecting a program, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning released its "2015 CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs—Middle and High School Edition" Wednesday.

The organization previously released a similar guide for elementary school programs. CASEL compares the guides to Consumer Reports because it uses fixed criteria to evaluate and categorize programs. In the secondary guide, programs are categorized as SELect, complementary, or promising. 

Nine programs made the SELect list. Here's how the guide describes that designation, which is its highest:

  • A program's design must: (a) intentionally and comprehensively promote students' development across the five social and emotional competency clusters, (b) engage students in their own social and emotional development by promoting awareness (e.g., through discussion or reflection) and providing opportunities for practice, and (c) offer programming over multiple years.
  • In terms of implementation, a program must offer training and ongoing support to interested schools or districts.
  • In terms of evaluation impact, we require at least one carefully conducted evaluation that (a) includes a comparison group, (b) is based on pre- and post-test measurement, and (c) demonstrates a positive impact on a student behavioral outcome reflected by statistically significant main effects (p < .05) between the treatment and comparison groups when controlling for outcome pretest. Analytic methods must be described with sufficient clarity and not include any serious threats to validity. If a qualifying evaluation includes a program effect that favors the comparison group then the program is ineligible to be SELect.

Different Approaches

It's important to note that the guide measures programs against CASEL's ideals.

A growing number of organizations and researchers are encouraging schools to focus on student's non-academic skills and strengths. Each takes a slightly different approach, and none can agree on a name for the broad field, which includes character-based education, 21st century skills, and non-cognitive approaches.

CASEL promotes social-emotional learning, which it describes as "how children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to understand and manage emotions, achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy, maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions." It emphasizes five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

CASEL initially evaluated 380 nominated programs to create the guide. After identifying the highest performing programs using a rubric, reviewers used data including material reviews, surveys of schools that had implemented the programs, and interviews to determine how the programs stacked up.

The guide is interactive, and included rubrics and narratives for each program explaining how reviewers arrived at their conclusions.

Has your school selected a social-emotional learning program? How did you decide what approach to take?

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