Striking a balance: SEL skills and access to relationships

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Apr 18, 2019

Last week Checker Finn and Rick Hess published the first in a series of reports at American Enterprise Institute on the promise and pitfalls of social emotional learning (SEL) in both policy and practice. I’m slated to contribute to the series later this year. Below is an early cut at some of what I’ll be tackling.

Finn and Hess write that they are—not surprisingly—wary of trading in academic rigor for social emotional learning (SEL advocates argue vehemently that this is a false dichotomy). But I have a different concern about where champions of SEL are channeling their enthusiasm. Even if academic rigor remains constant, we need to interrogate the “social” in social emotional learning. Teaching social skills is critical; but I often find myself wondering whether said SEL skill development is occurring in a vacuum from schools brokering new and authentic relationships.

SEL advocates don’t dispute the central importance of relationships for healthy development. But relationships also help students get by and get ahead—what sociologists and economists dub social capital. I worry that if SEL is being recruited to “fill in” the missing half of the so-called whole child, we are still treating that child as merely a bundle of skills. In turn, we risk leaving out a critical ingredient: not just students’ ability to interact and develop as social creatures, but also young people’s access to relationships and networks in the first place.

Slim but troubling data suggests that access to relationships is not altogether equal. For example, low-income young people report significantly fewer informal mentors—particularly beyond their family and neighborhood—than their wealthier peers. Down the line those relationship gaps spell unequal access to information, opportunities, and even jobs. In light of gaps like these, if SEL models invest heavily in relationship skills but neglect to invest in relationship access, SEL won’t necessarily be the instrument for equity that some hope for.

The pitfalls of championing skills over access

There are at least three related risks if skills become the be-all-end-all of SEL practice and research. First, touting learning skills as a primary outcome discounts the value of access. Advocates of SEL point to the virtues of learning discrete inter- and intrapersonal competencies as well as SEL interventions yielding better academic results. And when in doubt they can point to employers clamoring for more soft skills. However, this risks playing into a false, purely skills-based narrative about meritocracy. Those ‘succeeding’ in our meritocracy didn’t get where they are purely on their combination of soft and hard skills—but also on the relationships they had access to, and the people willing to take a bet on them. A greater emphasis on SEL in K-12 could help generate employees with the soft skills that employers are demanding. But building those skills alone won’t level the playing field of who gets which jobs.

Additionally, focusing on skill development can turn schools’ SEL efforts inside, rather than out. SEL is certainly a compelling lever for improving school culture (and SEL interventions are likely going to grow among states using school climate as a measure within ESSA). These approaches are not bad; indeed, they harken back to the tight-knit community that John Dewey himself called for. But taken too far, over time a model premised on tight-knit community could be insular to the point of isolationist. The costs of that isolation fall disproportionately to those students who are less networked beyond school.

Finally, if the primary outcome of interest is social emotional skills, then we’re bound to relegate relationships to inputs to that skill development rather than outcomes in their own right. One of the axioms in our research is that innovations grow on the metrics we hold them to. If skills are the dominant outcome, SEL models could improve in a manner that eventually eclipses access to relationships. In the near term this can mean schools opting for worksheets instead of more interactive, but time-consuming, SEL lessons or efforts. Over the longer term, this could have huge effects on where edtech fits into the SEL market. For example, technologies are already beginning to emerge that can simulate relationship scenarios but that fail to mark investments in social capital. Simulations can likely succeed in teaching discrete skills, but they fail to nurture networks. Again, the risk is that this disproportionately affects students with fewer connections or less diverse networks beyond the boundaries of their schools’ SEL efforts.

3 practices to integrate access and skills

If we’re not careful, enthusiasm for SEL could spread in ways that favor tools and models exclusively focused on building skillsets rather than networks. To mitigate these risks, certain practices can begin to integrate principles of social capital and new relationship development into the fold of social-emotional skill development.

1. Teach SEL in real relationships, not simulated ones. This can still happen online if costs are an issue. Most champions of SEL today likely have an allergic reaction to simulations; but the point here is that if skills is the key promise of this movement, edtech will start to deliver on said skills. Rather than trying to make simulations better and better, we should hold up edtech that connects, such as technologies that wrap human relationships around simulations so that low-stakes practice devoid of connections doesn’t end up dominating the market.

2. Leverage SEL to diversify the relationships in students’ lives. If SEL advocates have an authentic agenda to address opportunity gaps, then access to new relationships, with formal and informal mentors, is going to have to go hand in hand with SEL interventions. One example of this already afoot: Circulos Advanced Learning Academy (also a recent XQ grant winner) in Santa Ana, Calif. is taking popular SEL circles protocols and expanding their diameter to include community and industry that might otherwise not connect with students.

3. Get specific about which SEL competencies align with relationships. As an outsider to the SEL conversation whenever I try to dig deeper, I worry that SEL is being treated as an amorphous bundle of competencies that is hard to disentangle. But I wonder whether certain SEL “skills” are actually higher leverage when it comes to forging new, lasting connections than when it comes to driving test scores. For example, empathy might not yield better student outcomes as measured by test scores but it might be critical for developing positive social capital, especially across perceived lines of difference. Getting specific could liberate SEL champions from overpromising that all SEL competencies yield higher test scores, while also helping those schools bringing new relationships to bear in students’ lives do so with a grounding in the skills needed to maintain quality relationships.

I firmly believe that SEL’s advocates’ core principles should be celebrated and invested in: that SEL skills can be taught, that they contribute to learning and development, and that they are critical to forming and maintaining positive relationships. But a commitment to teaching skills—without matching that with an equal investment in brokering relationships—bespeaks a false narrative about access to opportunity. The key shift I’d hope to see in the albeit-crowded SEL conversation is to get clear and bold about where SEL skills and access to networks actually interact in the opportunity equation.

Are you wrestling with any skills-access trade offs in your SEL work? Is this just a false dichotomy? Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss!

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.