The Missing Piece: A History of SEL in Schools

Author W.B. Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” The goal of any school system is not to merely fill students’ minds with figures and facts but to help students to become thinkers and doers. We can do this by developing skills that will help them navigate through all sorts of challenges. Schools continue to grapple with how best to “ignite the fire” in students. Over recent decades, many educators have come to realize that social and emotional learning (SEL) is a key component of that process. Yet SEL as a formal practice in schools is relatively new and continues to evolve. As we continue to improve the ways we teach students the social and emotional skills needed to thrive in today’s world, it is important to look back on how SEL has changed and progressed over the years.

The Research Put a Spotlight on SEL

In the 1960s, Yale researcher James Comer began his now famous work on examining ways to improve academic achievement in low income youth. Comer studied the relationship between a student’s experiences at home and school and how this affects his/her academic achievement. Through his research he established the Comer Process, which helps students engage in learning by fostering supportive relationships between students, parents, and educators. The process also promotes a positive school climate and focuses on ensuring that children feel comfortable, valued, and secure. The Comer Process was piloted in two schools, and longitudinal research showed that it contributed to two changes in student achievement: grades and academic performance increased, and behavior issues decreased. Comer’s research marked an important milestone for SEL in schools, and in many ways opened the door for other organizations, researchers, and policy-makers to contribute and shape what SEL is today. In 1997, the thought-leader organization the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), was founded and laid the foundation for comprehensive and coordinated SEL programming in schools. Today, there are many other organizations that support SEL, including the American Institute of Research (AIR), the Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on for Social, Emotional, & Academic Development, the Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC), and many more.

SEL Finds Support and Funding from Many Corners

Additionally, funding opportunities for SEL programs and assessments have increased dramatically over the years. Schools typically support their SEL initiatives through state and local government funds. However, federal dollars can also be used, including Title I, II and IV funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). SEL has also been included in the framework of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which goes into effect this fall. Over the years, there has also been a significant increase in support from private foundations such the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, the United Way, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Integrating SEL into the School Day and Curriculum

Along with prioritization of SEL in schools and increased funding opportunities, SEL assessments and curriculum have also evolved. There are a number of measures available to educators, but few are as steeped in research as the DESSA Comprehensive System. The DESSA and the DESSA-mini are behavior rating scales for elementary school-age children (grades K-8). The tool can be completed by parents/guardians, teachers, out-of-school-time program staff, and staff at other child-serving agencies. The DESSA was created from a strong academic basis and measures CASEL’s five core competencies, plus additional measures to provide the most actionable data and a holistic look at a child’s strengths and needs. The DESSA has been standardized and norm-referenced, and the strong reliability and validity of the assessment demonstrate that it is an effective measure of the social and emotional competency of K-8 students. It is exciting to see the increasing traction of SEL in schools as more and more education professionals, policy-makers, community members, and parents come to understand that SEL is the missing piece in engaging students in learning.

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