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74 Interview: CASEL President on the Importance of Maintaining Quality in Social-Emotional Learning, Paying Attention to the Adults and Work as the Next SEL Frontier

By Bekah McNeel | December 9, 2019

Karen Niemi, presidents of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

See previous 74 interviews: former Sacramento schools chief Jonathan Raymond talks educating the whole child, researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings talks culturally relevant teaching, curriculum designer Christina Riley talks teaching students compassion and empathy alongside literacy. The full archive is right here.

Social-emotional learning, once seen as a soft “nice to have” to help kids get along on the playground, has evolved into a rigorously researched global movement to improve learning and outcomes in the classroom. Much of that growth has been driven by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

In October, the nonprofit celebrated its 25th anniversary by hosting the inaugural “Social and Emotional Learning Exchange” in Chicago. Some 1,500 practitioners and researchers from countries around the world shared innovations and challenges for the growing field, while hearing from the founders of CASEL about how the movement, which focuses on teaching students skills such as self-regulation, persistence, empathy, self-awareness and mindfulness, has gained momentum over the past two and a half decades.

Karen Niemi is the president of CASEL. Following the gathering, she spoke with The 74 on the current state of social-emotional learning, as well as its future.

This interview has been edited throughout for clarity and length.

The 74: What is the most pressing issue in social and emotional learning today?

Karen Niemi: With the increasing awareness and demand for social and emotional learning, there is a great need to maintain quality. It is critical for us to capture the opportunity to bring social and emotional learning to more schools and more kids across this country, but we have to do it well. That can be tricky. While in some places there is clear evidence and clear implementation models that can be replicated under certain conditions, the study of what works for whom and under what conditions is still evolving. We have to be very careful.

So, it seems like the challenge is to define “quality,” because of the contextual nature of social and emotional learning. It’s not one-size-fits-all, right?

Right. People are are adopting social and emotional learning for many different reasons. Based on the priority that a school district or school has set, implementation will not only look different, but will be different. So, for example, a lot of urban schools are deeply concerned about culture and discipline. They may adopt social and emotional learning with a driving focus on [methods like restorative justice and positive behavior intervention systems], while at better-resourced schools, you may see social and emotional learning more integrated into academics, or used to strengthen a school’s sense of community. However, we would suggest that the strength-based approach is warranted in both settings.

So that must make assessments tricky … 

It depends on what kind of assessment you’re talking about. If you’re talking about assessing individual students’ social and emotional competence, it shows the developmental aspect of this kind of learning. You don’t expect a high school kid to have the same social and emotional competence as an elementary student.

However, assessing where a particular student is in that development can be tricky, because social and emotional competencies are not stable over time or across contexts. Kids are different in the classroom, on the playground and under stress. That’s why we do not recommend social and emotional learning measures as “screeners” — for special ed, for gifted and talented, for anything. There are times when kids are getting identified and classified because people aren’t understanding the limitations of the measure.

There is also an overemphasis on self-report rather than performance measures in most social and emotional learning assessments. That’s not the most reliable metric, so we have to be careful.

Overall, rushing to assess students’ social and emotional learning competence de-emphasizes the attention on the adults creating the contexts in which students are functioning. If we’re going to assess social and emotional learning, we really should be looking at the learning environment in which kids are expected to grow, perform and develop. That’s the more important assessment: the learning environment.

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So should we be testing kids’ SEL at all? If we get the environment right, will they automatically absorb what we want them to learn?

I do think there is a very appropriate role for social-emotional competence assessment if it is used as a formative measure, to guide and improve practices, and not used in a punitive way. Context is king, so the learning environment matters. At the same time, sometimes social-emotional competence is not just absorbed or intuitive for students or adults. These things also need to be explicitly taught, as well as integrated into academics. It is both what and how we teach. Finding that balance requires delicate nuance. And sometimes in an effort to move quickly, people will focus only on one aspect or the other. That’s an oversimplification and a risk to the field.

What do we know about the connection of SEL to academic performance? 

We know from rigorous evaluation that social and emotional learning is linked to improved grades and standardized test scores. So when you incorporate social and emotional learning, kids do better academically. We also know that it is linked to other academically relevant outcomes like attendance, discipline, school bonding and those types of things. Wanting to be at school and how a kid feels when they are there is naturally linked to how well they’re going to engage in content and subject matter.

Where has the movement taken off the most, geographically speaking? 

CASEL has tracked social-emotional learning in every state, and our resources are downloaded in 186 countries across the globe. So the movement is actually widespread and doesn’t seem to be limited to certain local geographic locations or certain types of schools. People everywhere recognize the importance of paying attention to whole-child development. Their entry point might be motivated by one thing or another, but in many ways these are just common sense and practical policies, practices and programs that help schools. I see a groundswell of commonality in the interest in helping kids gain the academic, social and emotional skills they need to be successful in their lives. In some places, it’s equally focused on adults as well, as it appropriately should be.

Speaking of adults, at the CASEL 25th Anniversary event, co-founder Tim Shriver mentioned the need to bring SEL into politics and other adult spheres. Do you see that need?

If people learned how to listen to each other more, understand themselves and each other better, it would lead to a society that would get along better. It sounds very simple, but when you look at what’s happening and you look at how adults are behaving, [clearly it’s not]. Sophisticated societies depend upon individuals who know how to listen, communicate and work together to solve problems that ail not only their own society but the world. Whether you’re on the red or blue side of the spectrum, whether urban, rural or other — these skills are common to human development and I think are crucial to getting us through where we are politically at this moment in time.

But I actually have great hope for the future in that respect. I was at [the Social Emotional Learning Exchange this October] and saw the level of excitement, engagement and intentionality around helping kids and adults become happier, healthier, more productive members of their families, their communities and global society. It gave me great hope.

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In the past 25 years, what have been some discoveries that CASEL could not have anticipated but that have led to exciting new work?

I don’t think we could have anticipated that at this moment in time there would be as much uptake and excitement as there currently is, particularly in the connection between public education and the world of work. Twenty-five years ago we had a lot of ideas about how kids and adults with social and emotional competence can be better prepared to do well in school and in life. However, I don’t think we fully recognized that it would become a “need to have,” not just a “nice to have,” when it came to the workplace. The world of work is looking to public schools for that preparation.

So that world of work alignment is definitely a new frontier — what else is next for SEL? 

Like I mentioned before, we want to pay more attention to adult social and emotional learning. We’re also excited about really understanding how social and emotional learning can lead to more equitable learning environments for kids as the practices are woven into every part of the day.

When we understand how learning happens, it should affect everything about school. So that you don’t just have an SEL class for 20 minutes a day and then everybody closes their doors and forgets everything about it. An educational model that prioritizes all aspects of human development and the environment in which kids learn — that’s a game changer. Again, it is not only what they’re learning, but how they’re learning.

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