Every Learner Everywhere

An Introduction to Social-Emotional Learning In Higher Ed: Can It Support Equity Efforts?

As research accumulates showing that social-emotional learning (SEL) has a strong and lasting impact for K-12 students, it is increasingly being looked at as a practice that will benefit students in higher education.

What is social-emotional learning?

Social-emotional learning is an instructional framework that promotes the development of skills that allow a student to manage their emotions, engage constructively with others, and identify and work toward personal, career, or life goals. Students who have been in schools or classrooms using social-emotional learning have experienced benefits touching on academics (including learning outcomes, persistence, and retention), behavioral health, the learning community, and careers.

The Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has created the best-known SEL model, which includes five components:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Responsible Decision Making
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills

Teachers using social-emotional learning incorporate classroom activities and techniques such as reflective writing, daily check-ins, role playing, goal setting, and culturally relevant curricula. Other SEL practices emphasize building peer communities and a culture of caring in the classroom.

According to a 2011 article published in Child Development, a meta-analysis of 213 K-12 programs found that students who participated in SEL interventions that focused on the five competencies improved their academic performance by 11 points more than their counterparts who did not.

How is social-emotional learning used in higher ed?

SEL competencies have not been applied to the same degree in higher education as they have in K-12, but limited studies suggest that an SEL framework would benefit college students.

Drs. Kristel M. Gallagher and Shevaun L. Stocker are the authors of A Guide to Incorporating Social-Emotional Learning in the College Classroom: Busting Anxiety, Boosting Ability, a 69-page manual on how to create an SEL framework for a higher ed classroom, published through the Society for Teaching Psychology. It is based on the experience of designing and evaluating an SEL-based approach to the Statistics for the Social Sciences courses at their respective institutions.

The goal of the redesigned courses was to reduce students’ stress and anxiety using a series of activities outside of class and written reflection designed to create increased working memory capacity, allowing the students to better retain information in the moment. Activities such as goal visualization, mindful breathing, and assessing and utilizing strengths helped students focus on progress more than errors.

They conducted both quantitative and qualitative assessments on the courses and concluded that most students improved on indicators including stress appraisal, academic self-efficacy, math anxiety, failure avoidance, and disengagement. However, they did not report data on grades or other indicators of academic performance.

Gallagher and Stocker write, “The most notable change was in students’ appraisal of stressful situations as ‘challenges’ — feeling more confident in their ability to overcome stress and positively attack stressors, as well as believing they have what it takes to beat stress and the skills to overcome stress.”

The authors also note that the key to successfully implementing an SEL framework is in introducing it to the class early and providing students an opportunity to weigh in on its overall effectiveness.

In the Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning, Dr. Colleen Conley of Loyola University Chicago writes that students with more positive self-awareness and self-perceptions as a result of SEL practices adapt well in most higher education contexts. Students who learn self-management skills from SEL are more likely to display improved academic and cognitive performance.

Conley writes, “Helping students to develop strengths and assets that promote their social and emotional well-being seems to be just as worthwhile an investment in higher education as it is in earlier educational contexts.”

Related reading – Does Cognitive Load Impact Equity in Higher Ed?

Social-emotional learning helps center equity

CASEL has turned its attention to examining the use of SEL in higher ed, announcing in July 2022 that it will begin publishing a new journal dedicated to the topic and argues that SEL is a “powerful lever” for creating healthy, just, and inclusive schools. SEL fosters trusting and collaborative relationships, applies real-time evaluations of policies, practices, and outcomes, supports engagement between teachers, students, and community, and promotes rigorous and culturally meaningful curriculum.

CASEL continues, “To fully support all students’ SEL, adults need to understand their own biases and expectations, develop awareness of students’ cultures and backgrounds, and acknowledge and challenge any inequitable practices and/or policies that can limit or harm the development of children.”

The Education Trust in 2020 produced the report, Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens. Though written for K-12 educators, there are parallels to post-secondary education. The overall theme suggests educators need to stop trying to “fix” students — operating from a deficit mindset — and instead focus on students’ strengths.

Besides the change in focus, the report’s other action items to start centering equity while using an SEL framework include targeting specific efforts to reduce bias, providing holistic support, recognizing inherent cultural and contextual influences, and challenging students to achieve their full potential.

Related reading — Cultural Wealth In Higher Education: Putting Assets-based Perspectives Into Practice

Download Caring for the Whole Student: How Faculty and Department Leaders Can Address Their Students’ Mental Health

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