Creating the Conditions to Support Social and Emotional Learning

Teacher and young students in classroom

Since the pandemic began, research studies have uncovered increased mental health and well-being concerns for students and staff. These findings point to the need for more innovative approaches to expand student supports, including more effective social and emotional learning (SEL) opportunities. By strengthening the skills, such as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving, that youth need for academic success, well-being, and career opportunities, SEL can help young people thrive while they are in school and as they mature into adults.

Nick Yoder is an AIR principal policy and technical assistance consultant focused on youth and adult social, emotional, and academic development. In this Q&A, Yoder provides insights for states and school districts seeking to develop policies and support practices that create the conditions for the implementation of evidence-based SEL.

Q. How did you become interested in SEL?

Yoder: When I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, my co-adviser Rob Jagers introduced me to SEL. A light bulb went off. I thought, “As an awkward nerdy kid, what would my experience have been like if someone taught me social skills? What if someone had taught me how to better regulate my emotions when I didn’t understand something? Would I have not been bullied as much if the school became a place of empathy, communication, and connection?” These skills would have helped me, particularly as a first-generation, freshly out college student, excel in college rather than feel so out of place and isolated. To me, SEL was a piece of my educational experience that was missing that would have helped me navigate my own journey.

As I observed teachers as an instructional coach and reflected on my own time as a teacher, I recognized that there were things that teachers naturally do to support student development. So, it wasn’t so much that we needed to “give students these skills,” but rather it was all about how we were building relationships and providing opportunities for students that would let them unleash their potential.

Q. What advice do you have for states and districts embarking on a journey toward using SEL in their schools?

It wasn’t so much that we needed to 'give students these skills,' but rather how we were building relationships and providing opportunities for students that would let them unleash their potential.

Yoder: I’ve been very fortunate to be able to listen to others and be in spaces that allow me to hear about not only the innovative practices states and districts are taking but also the challenges they face in their SEL implementation endeavors. For instance, I was the director of policy for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), where I had the honor and privilege to oversee a 38+ state Collaborating States Initiative. At the beginning of this collaborative, states took a “one effort at a time” approach, first developing standards, then a toolkit, and then professional learning. Now states are becoming comprehensive and robust in their work. For example, we created a State Theory of Action or a roadmap for how states can take a coordinated and comprehension approach to move their work forward.

In another experience, I helped to refresh an SEL program, Harmony SEL. Before that project, I hadn’t yet taken time to reflect on how we can teach social and emotional competencies in a way that honors students’ lives and backgrounds. It was far more complex than I thought it would be to create helpful, easy to use resources to that end. Based on that experience, and what we know from the evidence in the field, I think it’s important to:

  • Give teachers and students permission to focus on SEL;
  • Ensure resources and activities are easy to use;
  • Give educators professional learning, coaching, and measurement supports; and
  • Make programs flexible enough that teachers can make them their own while still implementing the core pieces. 

Q. What is the most exciting shift or change in SEL recently?

Yoder: When I started working on SEL and academic integration in 2012, I was only able to find a couple of research articles and practice-oriented articles that spoke about academic integration. Fast forward 10 years, and now there is a broad cross-section of projects and teams working to better understand what SEL-academic integration means. For example, AIR colleagues are working on research projects with SEL programs, asynchronous professional learning, and defining what alignment means between SEL competencies and academic standards, in the hopes to better demonstrate the evidence in connecting SEL and academics. At AIR, we’ve created self-assessments and coaching toolkits to help educators and leaders continue to deepen their knowledge about SEL and academic integration. I am excited to continue to partner with states, districts, schools, and organizations on what SEL and academic integration means and looks like.

Q. How can educators, policymakers, and even researchers approach audiences who might be skeptical of the term “SEL”?

Yoder: We need to think about what “social and emotional [fill in the blank]” actually means. I say “fill in the blank” because we tend to put “social and emotional” in front of many concepts without actually clarifying what we mean: “social and emotional” learning, experiences, competencies, well-being, behavior, growth, climate, and health. Because of this ambiguity, it makes sense that people are unsure about what SEL is or means for their children.

It is also important to avoid using words that can be perceived as vague or unclear and instead use concrete language to describe what we are talking about and what we hope to achieve with SEL. For example, we want to prepare students for the workforce, and social and emotional skills like communication, collaboration, and problem-solving are all important skills that employers want. We also want students to be good citizens who can listen to many perspectives, be empathetic, and think critically. And we want students to be able to make good decisions related to their friend groups, healthy behaviors, and school work. As these examples demonstrate, SEL is about cultivating the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that families, employers, and community members find important and helpful for the children in their own communities.