Why Social and Emotional Learning has nothing to do with how students behave.

Title: Social and emotional learning in black letters. Below is the author: Tim Grivois, Ed.D.

-by Tim Grivois, Ed.D.

Much of my work with schools and nonprofits involves social and emotional learning (SEL). The reason why so many of my clients are eager to implement SEL into their classrooms and service areas is because it works. When we understand who we are, how to connect with others, and how emotions function, we discover an entirely new, fertile soil for learning and growth. SEL makes sense.

What I often notice, however, is that caring professionals implement social and emotional learning alongside behavioral supports. This causes two problems that reduce the overall value of SEL programming:

  1. The goal of SEL becomes about improving student behavior and compliance.
  2. Schools attempt Social and Emotional Learning without a written curriculum.

Social and Emotional Learning has nothing to do with how students behave.

Often, schools reach out to me for support with social and emotional learning because they want to improve their students’ behavior. The problems, though, is that improving behavior through SEL usually limits social and emotional achievement.

While effective social and emotional learning will often lead to positive behavioral outcomes, basing SEL programs around how we want students to behave limits what gets taught. For example, I recently checked out the posts on a popular SEL Facebook group. After sifting through all the vendors posting about their workshops, most posts start with a description of some student behavior that an adult wants to change.

Imagine a geometry classroom where every student were absolutely compliant with every teacher request, and never demonstrated any unexpected behavior that might disrupt the learning environment. While this classroom might be exceptionally easy to manage, positive behavior alone will not ensure that students learn geometry. At some point, we have to get to finding areas of solid figures, right? Similarly, SEL programs that are really about behavior might help students learn behaviors that support collaboration in the classroom, yet miss the actual content necessary to understand identity, name and regulate feelings, or establish and maintain healthy friendships and relationships.

Effective SEL instruction might lead to ‘better’ student behavior….as a side effect. The actual goal of social and emotional learning is mastery of skills and knowledge necessary to support social and emotional achievement.

Social and Emotional Learning requires a written curriculum.

To design effective instruction in any subject area, someone has to decide ahead of time what students are going to learn. The same is true with social and emotional learning. Whether integrated into content areas or taught as a stand alone part of a student’s day, the goal of time spent on SEL has to be for students to learn something.

Some schools create advisory schedules, SEL blocks, or otherwise set aside time for SEL without defining what students are supposed to achieve in that time. Schools and districts that emphasize SEL without knowing exactly what students are supposed to learn are left with know way of truly knowing what the results of their SEL programming actually is. 

Most schools implementing SEL for the first time choose to purchase a developed curriculum. Others develop a curriculum on their own. Either method will work, so long as schools apply the same processes for reviewing, revising, and enhancing the math, English language arts, or fine arts curriculum to ensure that the SEL curriculum is up to date. Of course, curriculum documents come alive when caring professionals make use of them in ways that make sense for their learners. However, having a written curriculum for social and emotional learning supports SEL by ensuring that commonly held goals have a common language and vocabulary.

I’ve emphasized the learning in social and emotional learning throughout this post for two reasons. 

  1. The goal of SEL is not about improving student behavior. It’s about mastery of skills and knowledge necessary for social and emotional achievement.
  2. Students engage in social and emotion learning in order to learn something. Given the time and resources assigned to SEL, having a written curriculum for what we expect students to learn is fundamental to knowing what social and emotional skills they have mastered.

Social and emotional learning makes sense. Knowing who we are, understanding how our emotions function, and being able to establish and maintain healthy interactions with people supports social, emotional, and academic success as well as improves the quality of life for our students in the future. We can support SEL best by emphasizing the learning and deemphasizing behavior.

If you’d like to schedule time to talk with Dr. Tim regarding social and emotional learning, click here. There is no charge to chat.

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