By Donique Reid

The concept of social and emotional learning (SEL) has grown within the education field as a means of preparing students adequately for college and a career. Although the exact definition of SEL varies, SEL generally refers to how students “manage emotions and deal with traumas in order to persist in their academic work.” SEL is just as important as knowing how to interpret informational text and is a necessary foundation for students to experience deeper learning in the classroom.

The skills acquired through SEL often are referred to as “life skills,” “social skills,” or “soft skills,” and are the exact skills many young college graduates are missing once they enter the workforce. A recent PayScale survey of more than 60,000 managers finds that young college graduates lack strong communication skills, leadership qualities, and interpersonal and teamwork skills. Understandably, there is growing acceptance that SEL is just as important for adolescent learners as it is in early childhood.

According to the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading organization committed to SEL research, evidence-based practice, and advocacy, middle and high school students who are socially and emotionally competent should be able to form and manage relationships, manage complex academic tasks, be independent of adult support, and be responsible for decisionmaking and behaviors. As such, SEL contributes to students’ development of deeper learning competencies. When students learn to manage relationships and work through complex tasks, they develop skills to master core academic content, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively. Similarly, as students learn to function independently of adults and become responsible decisionmakers, they become self-directed learners in the classroom.

Moving to SEL to Support Deeper Learning

One state, Illinois, has committed to integrating SEL instruction into secondary classrooms. The Illinois Learning Standards include three SEL goals: 1) develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success; 2) use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships; and 3) demonstrate decisionmaking skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts. To achieve these goals, students focus on managing their emotions, identifying areas of schooling that are challenging for them, and monitoring their progress toward personal and academic goals, among many other desired skills. Educators are shifting the structure and environment in their classrooms to support students as they achieve these goals.

In observing several SEL-focused classrooms, researchers have identified specific practices that allow educators and students to embrace SEL. These same practices create the enabling environment for deeper learning as well. Schools and classrooms that focus on SEL typically have a web of structural support; an intentional community; a culture of respect, participation, and reflection; and a curriculum that includes a focus on connection and engagement.

These structural and community-based elements contribute to an environment of shared learning among teachers. Teachers engage in interdisciplinary planning to support project-based learning and real-world connections to challenging content. These structural systems also allow for portfolio assignments and feedback to inform student self-directed learning. An emphasis on SEL equips students to take agency over their learning and make responsible decisions about their academic growth. A SEL classroom also supports a student’s ability to contribute to and work collaboratively with a group. Students learn to disagree constructively, provide feedback to one another, and listen respectfully to the input of others.

Approaching deeper learning absent of a focus on SEL strips students of the opportunity to develop the skills that employers seek, the same skills managers say recent college graduates lack. A renewed attention to SEL especially is critical for traditionally underserved students. Although high school graduation rates continue to increase, significant gaps persist for traditionally underserved students. By 2025, 68 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school and these SEL skills are essential.

Policy Changes Can Strengthen SEL

Simultaneously, both federal and state policies have shifted to broaden an emphasis on SEL in the secondary classroom. Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) creates the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants program, which provides formula grants to states to provide all students with a well-rounded education and to improve school conditions for student learning. States may use these funds to support “instructional practices for developing relationship-building skills, such as effective communication,” which can support SEL in the classroom.

As of April 2016, thirteen states have begun developing guidelines or standards for SEL implementation to include secondary school students. Eight states are working with CASEL to design, adopt, and implement research-based policies, guidelines, and standards to support statewide implementation of SEL. These states are leading the integration of SEL practices with academic and instructional content, a shift that can produce tremendous gains for traditionally underserved students.

There has been a rising debate about whether states should include SEL as an additional or “fifth” indicator in their accountability systems under ESSA. Although ESSA does not mandate that states include SEL in their accountability systems, the law opens the door for an emphasis on SEL to enable deeper learning and improved outcomes for students. As conversations, attitudes, and policy decisions shift about the importance of SEL, academic standards, instruction, and the structure of schooling most certainly will shift as well to create more deeper learning opportunities for traditionally underserved students.

Donique Reid is a policy and research associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.