Guest Commentary: In Social Emotional Learning, Massachusetts Should Step Up

Guest Commentary: In Social Emotional Learning, Massachusetts Should Step Up

Some schools teach "soft skills" like empathy and insight, says guest columnist Chad d'Entremont, but the state needs to do more. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Some schools teach “soft skills” like empathy and insight, says guest columnist Chad d’Entremont, but the state needs to do more. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

By Chad d’Entremont, Ph.D

Preparing today’s students for life after graduation must extend beyond academics. In an ever-changing global economy, employers want workers who can think critically, solve problems and adapt quickly. As more and more jobs become automated, ones that require both technical and interpersonal skills are still in demand.

Teaching our students reading, writing and arithmetic simply is not enough anymore — they need to learn persistence, patience and compassion too.

A growing body of evidence points to the importance of teaching children how to manage their emotions and behaviors. Known as social and emotional learning (SEL), the development of these noncognitive skills, like self-motivation and grit, is linked to better academic performance, higher college retention rates and increased employment and wages. These abilities lead to improved health and well-being as well, including a lower risk of substance abuse, obesity and criminal activity.

In sum, evidence shows that helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their impulses, and learn to be empathetic improves their ability to learn while preventing destructive behaviors. A focus on social and emotional learning is a key to closing achievement gaps and ensuring college and career readiness.

While Massachusetts leads the nation in traditional academic subjects, we are lagging behind when it comes to policies that help our students develop socially and emotionally.

Recent research from my organization, the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, looks at how other states and some local districts are prioritizing social and emotional learning. Kansas, for example, made SEL a statewide priority, creating standards to help guide student development. Here in Massachusetts, districts like Fall River, Gardner and Reading have robust SEL policies in place, and Boston Public Schools recently hired an assistant superintendent of social emotional learning and wellness to focus entirely on nonacademic skills. In schools throughout the Commonwealth, many teachers have long incorporated SEL into their classrooms and believe in the benefits of educating the whole child.

Despite this promising work, not enough is being done, systemically, to educate children beyond academics. A recent study of nearly 150,000 middle and high school students indicated that only 29 percent of students think their school supports the development of social and emotional skills. Another recent survey found a majority of Massachusetts business leaders had difficulty finding local graduates with workplace-ready skills, like those developed through social and emotional learning opportunities.

Progress is being made in individual classrooms and districts, but systems and policies have not kept up. Social and emotional learning needs to be integrated into the Commonwealth’s strategic plan and vision. While individual districts may be in the best position to implement programs, state-level support will signal the importance of this work and foster local innovation. Setting policies to support SEL, centralizing resources and securing funding will give districts the ability to incorporate SEL into their schools, tailoring programs to fit their communities and building on existing programs that are working.

We need a new vision for education in the Commonwealth. One that educates the whole child for the 21st century. Expanding social and emotional learning in schools is an opportunity to prepare students for the workforce, close achievement gaps and address the learning needs of each and every child.

There are challenges to making SEL part of school for all students, but the work that lies ahead is well worth the potential benefits of truly preparing students for lifelong success.

Chad d’Entremont is the executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy.


  • SEL4Mass

    Thank you for this Important article!

    Social-emotional learning (SEL) is crucially important to business success as Dr. D’Entremont makes clear. The Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts is beginning advocacy work in the business community in Massachusetts. As its resource, please see http://www.eiconsortium.org which shows that effective SEL training has a great effect on business decisions, its hiring and retention of employees, cultural awareness, sales force effectiveness and many other key components of business life. We encourage all businesses to advocate with their state officials, from state representatives to Governor Baker, for SEL in all schools in Massachusetts, whether public, private or charter.

  • CDennehy

    “We need a new vision for education in the Commonwealth. One that educates the whole child for the 21st century. Expanding social and emotional learning in schools is an opportunity to prepare students for the workforce, close achievement gaps and address the learning needs of each and every child.”

    I agree that we need to have the skills we label as Social/Emotional on our radar as educators. I also think a great deal more work could be done (or maybe just better communicated?) about what a 21st Century citizen should look like.

    My immediate struggle though is that the response to this is often to include a defined “social skills curriculum” in our schools. By this I mean chunks of time we take out to dedicate to lessons on things like apologizing, or responsibility. Also, these lessons also become didactic and take a dumping approach. This feels problematic for a couple of reasons.
    1. We are teaching students that social skills are a skill outside of themselves, instead of an intrinsic part of who we are. Similarly, it sets up a means of viewing social skills as a reward. I got a 100 in perseverance today! Instead of, I persevered through my test and the resulting feeling is wonderful!

    2. When teachers put these lessons on for students, we often begin to view these skills in a way that adults do so. We define responsibility, trust, positive speech, taking criticism differently and also with different levels of importance. For instance, while trust is always a big deal, it is tantamount in the lives of middle schoolers figuring out who they are. Also, what trust looks like to them is not the same as what it may look like to us.

    I fear that making this a state mandate is that it will be implemented as though these skills are academically based; meaning they are separate from academic areas. Also, that the means of “assessing” these skills will be academically based; meaning writing things on worksheets or in essays.
    Social skills are by definition necessarily social. They involve the world around them and have to be integrated into everyday situations and interactions, beyond academic study.

    Social skill approaches need to be about professional development of educator (including administrator) awareness that EVERY interaction we have with students is a social skills lesson. And increasing those moments- administration to educators, educators to students, administration to students, student to students and school staff to everyone- is the way to build these skills. To do otherwise actually devalues the skills and shifts them to an extrinsic, instead of intrinsic desire and ability.

    • SEH

      You^ are 100% correct. Particularly in the admin-teacher and adult-student interactions – making ghis a culture of empathy and sensitivity, not an “Open Circle” lesson which my kids have pretty much scoffed at for years as “fake.”

  • Leaky Pen

    This is the first I’ve heard of SEL. As a parent I find it interesting and plan to learn more. One place where opportunities may exist is in after-school programs. Often these are blocks of unstructured time and social interaction.

  • Barb MacEachern

    Many Out of School Time programs are spot on with their integration of SEL. Cambridge has a robust system that supports OST teacher by providing training, coaching and community learning spaces. Schools could learn from OST programs housed right in their own building!
    http://Www.agendaforchildren.org