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States Are Stepping Up to Support Social and Emotional Learning

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By Linda Dusenbury, Ph.D.

A few years ago, when Roger Weissberg and I first began to envision a learning community to help states support social and emotional learning, we knew there was both a need and an opportunity. But we had no idea the energy and momentum we were about to witness.

By then, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) had been supporting individual states for more than 10 years, helping them advance systemic, evidence-based approaches to social and emotional learning. Our work with states began when CASEL was part of the working group that helped to develop the 2004 Illinois SEL Standards - the country's first set of K-12 standards for social and emotional learning.

We were also partly inspired by CASEL's Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI), which launched in 2010. District teams had been telling us for years that states could play a key role in creating the conditions to help districts make social and emotional learning a central part of their work. And because of the CDI we also saw the power of a learning community, and we wanted to see if a community of practice could energize state teams in similar ways. 

Plus, thanks to ESSA, many more states were beginning to think deeply about how to create evidence-based policies and guidance that would encourage and equip educators to advance student's social, emotional, and academic development.

But we really had no idea about the level of state interest we would witness. Our initial grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2015 would allow us to support five states. Yet in response to CASEL's request for proposals, 40 states signed up to learn more about the project.

Thanks to additional grant funding from Pure Edge, Inc. and the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, we kicked off our Collaborating States Initiative in 2016 with 18 states. Two years later, we are now connected to 25, and the number continues to grow. These states collectively educate over 60 percent of the nation's school children. These are blue states, red states, and purple states; heavily rural states and heavily urbanized states; states at both ends of the student achievement spectrum and everywhere in between.

As we detailed in a recent report, Emerging Insights from the Collaborating States Initiative, states are taking a variety of customized approaches to support social and emotional learning statewide -- articulating learning goals, providing guidance to support social and emotional learning (including on equity and cultural responsiveness, and integration with academics), providing professional learning to educators, and strategically integrating social and emotional learning into academics and existing programs. In many states, we see a combination of these strategies.

And the momentum at the state level is still growing. For example, in 2011 a single state (Illinois) had adopted K-12 social and emotional learning standards. As of this month, at least 13 states have articulated social and emotional learning competencies through 12th grade, an additional seven states have PreK-early elementary standards, and at least 17 states have posted guidance related to social and emotional learning on their websites. By the end of 2019, we expect at least 18 states will have articulated social and emotional learning competencies through 12th grade.

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The CSI is committed to supporting any state interested in advancing social and emotional learning. As we've learned through our work, there are simple steps education leaders and their state teams can take right away to support students' social, emotional, and academic development.

First, communicate clearly and explicitly (including in state webpages, strategic plans and other materials) that social and emotional learning is an essential part of student success, and a priority in the state. For example, California developed a set of guiding principles to promote social and emotional learning and provide direction to educators on important elements to consider in their planning and implementation. Massachusetts identified "SEL, Health, and Safety" as one of the state's five strategic priorities. Rhode Island identified the development of social and emotional learning as a priority in its strategic plan.

Second, explore what other states are doing to support social and emotional learning (including the many examples described in our Emerging Insights Report). Many state working groups decided to articulate social and emotional competencies, but others like Washington have focused on creating professional development to support educators in implementing social and emotional learning.

Third, take advantage of CSI tools and resources available to develop policies and guidance.

Over the first two years of the CSI, we have learned a lot, including the importance of state leadership to elevate social and emotional learning and integrate it across agency priorities; the need for strong communications and support for district professional development; and the value of cross-state and cross-district learning communities. CASEL is deeply grateful for all we are learning from our collaboration with state teams. And the most exciting news is this: CSI participating states have only just begun. 

Linda Dusenbury, Ph. D. is senior research scientist at CASEL and directs the Collaborating States Initiative. Educators and state leaders interested in the CSI can visit the CSI website or contact Linda directly at [email protected].

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