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Essential ingredients of social and emotional learning

kate-walker.jpgRather than delivering a separate SEL curriculum, a recent issue of Social Policy Report proposes that schools integrate the teaching and reinforcement of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills into educators' daily interactions and practices.

Using a food metaphor, the authors describe this as a shift "from a focus on packaged, branded product (curriculum) to the essential ingredients like vitamins and minerals (essential and beneficial strategies)." I think a strategies approach is more in sync with how SEL ought to be framed in out-of-school settings as well.

Blending techniques

So what are some of the "essential ingredients" for promoting SEL? The report outlines four strategies for integrating SEL into daily practice:
  • Routines - Routines that promote SEL skills like emotional regulation (e.g., "Stop and Stay Cool," a three-step process for staying in control of emotions) and conflict resolution (e.g., the "Peace Path," a process in which both parties state their feelings and come to a mutually agreeable solution).
  • Training and Support for Staff - Help staff interact positively with youth, react effectively to emotional and social challenges, communicate clear expectations, and set up conditions for positive climates.
  • Support for Adults' Own SEL Skills - Not all staff naturally possess SEL competencies themselves; They need ongoing discussion and reflection. This edutopia blog post offers five suggestions for how adult staff can build their own SEL skills.
  • SEL Standards - Benchmarks provide guidance on the kinds of SEL skills that need to be fostered in everyday practice. They also play a role in guiding assessment and the use of data to improve practice.

Flavor enhancers

Another way to frame "essential ingredients" is with the S.A.F.E. practices found to effectively enhance social and emotional competencies (Durlak & Weissberg, 2013):
  • S - Sequenced - A planned set of activities to develop SEL skills in a step-by-step fashion.
  • A - Active - Active forms of learning where youth practice SEL skills.
  • F - Focused - Sufficient time and attention devoted exclusively to SEL skill development.
  • E - Explicit - Specific SEL skills are defined and targeted.

Active ingredient

Developmental relationships have been characterized as the "active ingredient" - the critical component responsible for producing desired outcomes in programs. Developmental relationships are interactions with the following features:
  • Connection - Interacting with mutually positive or appropriate emotions; Being in-tune.
  • Reciprocity - Balancing youth-adult roles and power.
  • Progression- Presenting incremental challenge matched with appropriate support; Scaffolding.
  • Participation - Inviting and involving all youth; Belonging.
What do you think of this shift from curricula to strategies and practices? What "essential ingredients" do you use to promote social and emotional learning in your program setting? Do you agree that developmental relationships are the "active ingredient" of effective programs?

-- Kate Walker, associate Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice

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  1. Pam Larson NippoltJuly 3, 2014 at 3:25 AM

    Kate – Thank you for this post. Yes, I agree that developmental relationships can be thought of as the “active ingredient” for social emotional learning. Maybe developmental relationships are like yeast. An experienced bread baker once told me that each kitchen has wild yeast spores from food that has lived in the kitchen environment. Yeast spores are more prolific and productive when they are in the midst of other yeast spores. To take this further, developmental relationships beget developmental relationships. The community that youth do their academic learning within is also essential to their social emotional learning. The ability of adults to tend to the features of connection, reciprocity, progression, and participation are greatly affected by other factors like class size and time spent on classroom management. It makes sense to avoid the addition of yet one more curriculum to the standards for our classrooms, which further stresses the school day for both teachers and students. How can we, as youth development professionals, make the case for youth that the school day also needs to provide the necessary ingredients, and “kitchens”, that foster developmental relationships? The two worlds of formal and nonformal learning are often seen as separate, but it seems that the lines are beginning to blur!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Pam. I appreciate the bread metaphor, with developmental relationships as the yeast or leavening agent! Sometimes it’s seen as easier to introduce a curriculum into a classroom or program – it’s ready to go! But even for the most promising interventions, effect sizes are modest and implementation varies widely. I agree that we need to integrate developmental relationship and the strategies and practices that teach and reinforce SEL throughout AND beyond the classroom. It can’t just be a stand-alone curriculum, and it can’t be happening in just one arena of young people’s lives.

  3. Kate, thanks for this thougt-provoking post. I love the ingredients metaphor, because really SEL should be folded into all the work that we do, since we are trying to develop youth who are able to apply these skills in every realm of their life. We don't only want youth to have a strong capacity for self-management on Thurs. 4-6pm; we want them to be able to employ those skills consistently across the various realms of their lives. Similarly, we might not be addressing every single one of them every time we are with youth, but over the course of our program, hopefully they will get a "balance diet" of SEL.

  4. Thanks for joining the conversation, Kathryn! Yes, if we want young people have these skills across time and space, we need to be supporting their development in a more integrative way. My daughter and her friends report not liking the SEL curriculum used in their school, but I think it’s partly because the content isn't relevant or embedded into the daily interactions of students and staff. Curricula can be really useful – I just don’t think they are enough as stand-alone interventions. Helping staff be intentional about these essential ingredients – the strategies, practices and relationships – seems like a better focus for enhancing SEL competencies.

  5. This blog post is a good reminder to shift the paradigm on SEL. When the SEL research first came out, it was evident that good youth development practitioners had this philosophy for decades. How do we change this philosophy for all educators?? SEL skills are not taught in a stand-alone curriculum! It is modeled, it is passed down from generations, it is woven throughout all learning experiences, nonformal and formal. I believe it really needs to begin with adults and changing the focus of youth work and educator training/coursework.
    Kate - have you explored the Happiness Project?

  6. Thanks for your note, Nicole. Yes – staff training and support are absolutely key. There are many excellent youth workers AND teachers who do this well, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally for everyone, and there are plenty of constraints and demands that get in the way despite the best intentions. In either setting, in order to be most effective, these SEL ingredients need to be integrated and reinforced throughout rather than just a stand-along curriculum.
    I have read Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project” – but are you referring to something else?

  7. I really like the SRCD Social Policy Brief you note and the emphasis on strategies and essential ingredients instead of primarily curriculum. Turning that into the notion of active ingredients is a great addition.
    I would, however, likely place caring people, constructive places and challenging possibilities as the essential developmental nutrients (and (developmental relationships as the active ingredient) not CASEL's five SEL outcomes. These five competencies and things like perseverance and growth mindset are the kinds of outcomes or competencies that strong developmental practices with quality active SEL ingredients produce. They are the result of a good diet not just elements of it.
    While I strongly agree with the comments on the limits of curriculum alone and the need for both school and community contexts to be rich with active ingredients and role models, I wonder if we underestimate the powerful combined role of curriculum (design not product) and professional development to increase intentionality. Curriculum can help ensure that the SAFE factors are in place so SEL can be "taught" and professional development (of teachers and youth workers) can help ensure SEL is "caught" in the developmental process.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Dale! I agree, in this analogy the strategies and practices are the ingredients that result in the development of SEL nutrients. I also appreciate your caution that we don’t dismiss curricula – they can be really useful, just not a panacea.


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