5 ways to ensure SEL is an instrument for equity of opportunity

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Feb 12, 2020

Last month, AEI published my new article titled “Unleashing the social in social-emotional learning.” In the piece, I discuss how central relationships are—and should be—to the SEL field and the outcomes it cares about.

Arguably, the last decade of efforts to elevate SEL have honed a national focus on the social lives of children. But it’s worth asking: Where do relationships actually rank in SEL advocates’ minds? Seemingly, not high enough. Take the Aspen Institute’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD) Commission report A Nation at Hope, which came out to great acclaim earlier this year. The report was the culmination of a multiyear process spearheaded by high-profile leaders across education, science, government, and the private sector. It offers a comprehensive look at a growing research base and emerging practices as SEL has swept the nation.

Although an impressive summary, there’s a subtle but troubling trend: the word ‘skills’ appears 140 times—almost seven times as much as the word ‘relationships,’ which appears a mere 23 times. The word ‘network’ appears only 14 times—and when it does appear, it refers only to adult networks rather than network-building for students.

These numbers hint at my lurking concern about where champions of SEL are channeling their enthusiasm. Students certainly need to develop a host of critical skills to manage their emotions and interact productively with others—and those skills pay important dividends in students’ academic development. But students also need to be exposed to relationship-rich environments and offered access to a range of supportive connections who can help them get by and get ahead.

Here are 5 ways SEL champions could elevate relationships in their work:

1. Treat relationships as outcomes

It can be tempting to hone in on SEL skills as the key endgame, but SEL champions should embrace equitable approaches that tackle building skills and building new relationships—particularly in unlocking access to social networks otherwise out of reach. In other words, if schools are going to invest in social skills, they should also step in to offer students opportunities to form new relationships—with new mentors, industry experts, or even peers in other classes—where those skills can be put to work. 

To make this a reality, we need to start treating relationships as outcomes. If we relegate relationships to serving only as inputs to skill development, relationships can be inadvertently treated as one-offs, disposable and even at risk of automation. If relationships are instead treated as outcomes, we’ll start investing in institutional designs and intervention models through which relationships are deliberately nurtured and outlast one-time interventions.

2. Include real human connections, even in tech-based tools

SEL skills are often learned in the context of authentic relationships. Districts and schools should remain wary of technology apps that merely simulate the sorts of social interactions that hone SEL skills. Although they may make for good, cheap “practice,” longer-term they threaten to advantage those students who have access to broad and diverse networks and disadvantage students with fewer opportunities to put those skills to work.

That said, technology and simulations are not synonymous. Technology can still be an accelerant for teaching SEL in the context of authentic relationships. And technology is especially promising when it comes to schools unlocking relationships that are difficult to coordinate or currently out of reach for students in the course of their school day or in the confines of their neighborhood. For example, technology can help to unlock latent connections within a school. GiveThx is an app that teaches students about how to express gratitude. Students and teachers send ‘Thx notes’ in order to show others—even those they may not be close to—their gratitude and to recognize and reinforce positive behaviors across classrooms and schools. Another tech tool, Empatico.org, teaches empathy through a curriculum in the context of connecting students with peers from around the world over video chat. Technologies like these buck the tech-enabled simulations in favor of tech-enabled authentic connections.

3. Diversify students’ relationships

Diversifying students’ professional networks can expand their career options down the line to improve their prospects in an ever-changing labor market. SEL interventions could offer space to nurture these networks while also developing skills.

Some schools are taking deliberate steps in this direction, tapping a range of latent social assets that schools all too often ignore right in their backyard. For example, Circulos High School in Santa Ana uses a Circle’ protocol to nurture deep connections among students and staff.  But Circulos’ approach to developing relationships and SEL skills doesn’t stop there. The school is expanding the diameter of these circles to include community members and industry experts that otherwise might not interface with students. As part of the model, students go out into the community to learn and develop social skills in the context of expanded professional networks.

4. Align competencies with relationship-building

The term SEL signals a bundle of important skills that child development researchers have been studying over decades. Some of these skills are known to drive better academic learning outcomes, while others are important so-called “non-academic” outcomes in their own right. Insight into which particular SEL “skills” are better suited to forging new, lasting connections could help schools adopt and continuously refine more specific, targeted SEL approaches based on which skills they are hoping to build among students. 

For example, empathy might not yield better reading outcomes as measured by test scores, but it might be critical for developing positive social capital, especially cultivating a willingness to connect with others across perceived lines of difference. Communication skills may not directly improve math outcomes as much as they can bolster students’ ability to participate productively across a range of academic, civic, and professional communities. Getting specific about the alignment of certain skills with certain types of relationships could liberate SEL champions from painting with too broad a brush on the upside potential of SEL, while also helping schools bring new, positive relationships to bear in students’ lives. 

5. Expand research

Scholarship at the intersection of SEL and social capital could yield breakthrough insights, especially when it comes to improving outcomes for young people on the wrong side of opportunity gaps. To do so requires using methodologies and instruments across disciplines. 

For example, xSEL Labs, an SEL assessment company founded by a Rush University behavioral sciences professor, offers a tool called Networker for schools to conduct social network analysis alongside their battery of SEL skills assessments. Other promising research could build on approaches like Search Institute, which has built a Developmental Relationships Framework that captures not simply the adult behaviors that can foster SEL development in students, but also how those adult-student relationships continue to strengthen and evolve over time. Technology can play a role too: tools like the Person-Centered Network App originally developed at the University of Colorado Denver and now run out of Visible Network Labs, allows educators and social workers to map young people’s networks of support, and consistently collect data on developments in social connectedness alongside social skills. Research tools and approaches like these can start to offer data and generate further research into the powerful interaction of skill and network development. 

Providing a lasting value

Relationships and skills are by no means an either-or. All students, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status, should have access to both the social skills and social networks it takes to succeed. Looking ahead, there’s an exciting possibility that adding social capital as an outcome alongside skills could ensure that SEL efforts are leveling the playing field not just of what students know how to do, but whom they know as well.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.