How to do SEL in K-12 – Takeaways from the RAND Corporation Review of SEL Interventions 2017

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a real thing and if teachers in your school, district or state are not already explicitly teaching SEL skills, it is likely that they soon will be. Several states have adopted SEL standards for K-12 curriculum. More still have adopted SEL standards for K-3. And nearly all states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and/or the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or standards that look exactly like them. The CCSS and NGSS have SEL standards embedded in the form of expectations around communication, collaboration, and cooperation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), our current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that governs federal funding for K-12, offers plenty of room for funding SEL programming in K-12 schools through Titles I, II, and IV. The evidence based component of the chosen interventions to be funded by federal dollars leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Fortunately, the RAND Corporation with funding from the Wallace Foundation, has taken on the task of examining the literature, the research and the practices with either a proven track record of impacting SEL development or significant promise for doing so. In Social Emotional Learning Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a team from RAND did an exhaustive search for U.S. K-12 SEL interventions that have been studied, and graded the evidence according to the evidentiary guidelines contained in the ESSA language.

ESSA contains guidelines for “evidence-based practice” that will qualify for federal funding. The RAND team went to great lengths to qualify the evidentiary support for all of the SEL interventions they could find in the last fifteen years. Using similar criteria to the What Works Clearinghouse, the RAND team created four tiers of evidentiary support. Tier 1 meets the most rigorous research standards in demonstrating effectiveness. Tier 4 interventions show promise, but have not yet been shown to be effective by scientific standards of research. Regardless, all of the program types reviewed by RAND are likely to be accepted as federally fundable. It is very early days in evaluating SEL programs and schools and districts should use the RAND review as a guideline for determining locally appropriate SEL programming. At this stage,  it would be unrealistic to expect any SEL curriculum or SEL partner organization to have already met the highest standards of demonstrating effectiveness – although a couple of them do.

Below is a synopsis of what the RAND report reveals about SEL curriculum and interventions for middle schools and high schools. The list of elementary school resources was so great that it defied my efforts to classify.

For both middle and high schools, there are several unbranded intervention approaches that have evidentiary support. Among these are mindfulness training, yoga, crisis intervention, and peer mediation. There are a few nonprofit service providers that have been around long enough to have had their approaches studied and determined to meet at least tier 3 rigor. Among them are the Committee for Children’s Second Step program, The Connect with Kids curriculum, and the Responsive Classroom.

There has been more study of SEL intervention in middle schools than in high schools. The middle school options for branded partners are many, and their approaches span a wide range of interventions from quiet time to student adjudicated restorative justice. Studies of high school SEL interventions are fewer and more basic. Yoga, mindfulness training, cultural sensitivity training, and peer mediation have all been shown to have positive impacts on student SEL skills and attitudes in high school.

There is a common counter argument for implementing SEL curriculum at any level and it is that these emerging standards might just be an educational fad. Why invest time to change practice if SEL is just the flavor of the day? Fair enough. Consider, however, that there is also evidence that shows a focus on evidence based SEL interventions improves school climate, student interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, and these things in turn have a positive impact on student outcomes in both reading and math scores.

Fad or not, a focus on evidence-based SEL instruction at your school or district can improve academic performance, and it may just pay dividends with a more pleasant political discourse in the future. Wouldn’t that be a nice.

Image source: @gwynethjones Circling-Restorative Justice CC0

About Jack West

Teacher, team member, father, neighbor.

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