Why Schools Need to Re-Think, Re-Evaluate, Re-Load, and Re-Boot
All students need to learn and demonstrate—at an appropriate developmental level—effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills. In the classroom, these skills are essential to maximizing their academic engagement and achievement, as well as their ability to collaborate and learn in cooperative and project-based learning groups.
The “Good News” is that this is increasingly recognized in our educational communities.
Indeed, based on McGraw-Hill’s just-published Education 2018 Social and Emotional Learning Report with its survey of over 1,000 administrators, teachers, and parents, all three groups said that they believe that social and emotional learning is just as important as academic learning. More specifically, social and emotional learning was endorsed by 96% of administrators, 93% of teachers, and 81% of parents.
But just 22% of the educators said that they feel “very prepared” to teach SEL, and 51% said the level of SEL professional development at their school is not sufficient.
[See a more extensive description of this Report in our full Blog message.]
_ _ _ _ _
Relative to the outcomes of an SEL program, it is important to note that, while the skills needed are essential in school. . . they also are critical when students enter the post-graduation workplace.
Indeed, an AACU Employer Survey & Economic Trend Research report, referenced in the September 5, 2018 issue of Education Week, identified the following top characteristics that employers seek of new hires:
· Able to effectively communicate orally
· Critical thinking/analytical reasoning
· Ethical judgment and decision-making
· Able to work effectively in teams
· Able to work independently (Prioritize and Manage Time)
· Self-motivated, shows initiative, proactive: Ideas/Solutions
· Able to communicate effectively in writing
· Can apply knowledge/skills to real-world settings
_ _ _ _ _
But, pedagogically, in order to demonstrate these skills, they need to be explicitly taught to students. . . from preschool through high school. . . as part of a systematic, scaffolded, articulated Health, Mental Health, and Wellness “curriculum.”
This is something most SEL programs do not discuss.
And, as part of the instructional process, students need to learn, master, and be able to apply these skills in a timely way to different situations.
To accomplish all of this, students need to learn and demonstrate:
· Self-control—when experiencing emotional conditions;
· Cognitive, or attributional, control—so that their thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations support and motivate prosocial behavior; and the
· Verbal, non-verbal, and physical behaviors needed to “get the job done.”
This is the science that results in students’ social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral self-management and self-efficacy.
And these are the outcomes that every Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) school-based initiative and/or program in this country should target for all students.
_ _ _ _ _
But these initiatives or programs also need to recognize that not all students learn the same way, and that social, emotional, and behavior instruction needs to be adapted for students (a) from different cultural, racial, language, socio-economic, or family constellation backgrounds; (b) with different gender or psychosexual orientations; or (c) with one or more of the thirteen different disabilities recognized in federal law (i.e., IDEA).
And these initiatives or programs especially need to consciously identify and integrate the multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and interventions required by students who are at-risk, underachieving, underperforming, unresponsive, and unsuccessful. . . in addition to the students who are demonstrating frequent or intense social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.
_ _ _ _ _
Where Does CASEL’s Framework Fit?
Critically, the multi-tiered research-to-practice instruction-to-intervention paradigm described above is not advocated, or even discussed, by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—the most-dominant SEL voice in the country.
In fact, in addition to its global, difficult-to-assess outcome constructs (see below), CASEL’s framework has numerous shortcomings.
Indeed, CASEL is explicitly or implicitly on-record for:
· Saying that districts and schools should have broad discretion in deciding what their SEL initiative will target and look like.
[This runs the risk that schools will implement unproven or the easiest-to-employ practices that are wasteful, ineffective, or counterproductive.]
_ _ _ _ _
· Missing the importance of adapting SEL initiatives for students from different cultural, racial, language, socio-economic, or family constellation backgrounds; with different gender or psychosexual orientations; or with one or more disabilities.
[This may result in maintaining or increasing the SEL skill gaps between these students and others who may already have these essential skills.]
_ _ _ _ _
· Missing the need for multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and interventions for at-risk, underachieving, underperforming, unresponsive, and unsuccessful students, as well as those with significant social, emotional, behavioral, and/or mental health challenges.
[This potentially denies these students the opportunities to access the SEL instruction and, thus, to successfully learn and master the embedded skills.]
_ _ _ _ _
· Largely publishing school and district SEL descriptive “testimonials” (to demonstrate that SEL and its framework is effective).
[These descriptive case studies report “outcomes” that are not based on random selection and control group comparisons . . . their “evaluations” do not use objective data collection and sound statistical analysis techniques. . . and the “conclusions” that connect any favorable outcomes directly to the SEL program are inappropriate because the method and statistics do not demonstrate a “cause and effect” relationship.
_ _ _ _ _
Conclusion. Thus, as discussed in Part I of this Blog (see summary below), while CASEL may be largely responsible for the political and public relations-driven advancements of SEL, its research is weak and its pronouncements about SEL’s real contribution to the classroom may be overstated.
As noted above, CASEL’s “implementation” frameworks similarly has gaps and weaknesses. This framework has largely ignored, missed, or avoided a multi-tiered psychological foundation regarding students’ social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health, and it has failed to consistently utilize sound, objective, and defensible research and science-to-practice processes.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
An Overview of this Blog and Review of Part I
In this Blog, we critique CASEL’s foundational beliefs; document concerns with CASEL’s SEL student-focused outcomes; and present a more defensible science-to-practice approach to implementing valid SEL strategies.
In Part I of this Blog, we discussed:
· The current media train of Social-Emotional Learning, how virtually all district leaders nationwide are “investing in SEL products,” and how most of the “press” is “positive press” because “Why would a school or district send out a press release that its SEL program has failed?”
[Parenthetically, U.S. News and World Report once again promoted SEL and CASEL (in a “human interest” story that was devoid of any hard, objective, research-based data) this past month.]
· The number of districts and schools that are implementing or purchasing “SEL programs and curricula” without independently and objectively evaluating (a) their research to determine if they are “ready” for field-based implementation; (b) whether they “fit” the demographics, students, and needs of their schools; and (c) whether they have a high probability of positively impacting the social, emotional, and behavioral student outcomes that they seek.
· How SEL’s recent popularity (and legitimacy—at least, in the media) is the result of a multi-year effort by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to court and leverage foundations, politicians, well-regarded educators, and other powerful national figures to “independently” support its “movement.”
[CASEL’s website acknowledges that one of its goals is to establish a “national movement” supporting it version of SEL.]
· How many of the SEL “successes” touted in the media (and in some journals) are scientifically unsound, and how they confuse correlational (or contributory) outcomes for causal outcomes— assuming the latter by concluding that their SEL activities caused the student and other outcomes they report.
· How the three foundational SEL research studies, published by CASEL principals, have significant methodological and empirical flaws, and the difficulties in translating meta-analytic studies to effective field-based practice.
· How so many things have been reframed to take advantage of the SEL movement, and how SEL has become incredibly profitable for some publishers and vendors—leading to “marketing campaigns” that mask the questionable quality of some programs and curricula.
_ _ _ _ _
Flaws in CASEL’s SEL Foundational Beliefs
In this section of the full Blog, CASEL’s definition of Social and Emotional Learning, its conceptual framework, and its recommended Action steps are discussed and critiqued.
CASEL says that every district and school should create its own version of SEL using “a strategic, systemic approach that involves everyone, from district and school leaders to community partners to family members, working together to ensure students receive the support they need.”
But CASEL’s strategic planning approach is no different than what districts and schools have been doing for years relative to their academic programs—and we all know that many districts find it challenging to implement and sustain effective strategic planning processes even in their academic domains.
Nonetheless, to assist, CASEL provides a list of “possible SEL activities,” but it does not guide schools in the decision-making processes needed to determine which SEL activities will result in the most effective and efficient student outcomes.
The ultimate point here. . . is that ten districts or schools could use CASEL’s recommendations—and the support materials from its website—and end up with ten different ways “to do” SEL. More critically, given their approaches, there is virtually no assurance that any of these districts or schools will successfully attain any positive, sustained changes in students’ social, emotional, and/or behavioral proficiency.
_ _ _ _ _
In the final analysis given CASEL’s approaches: “SEL is whatever a district or school decides it is.”
Clearly, this is not a good recipe for success.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Flaws in CASEL’s Targeted Outcomes. . . and How They are Evaluated
The Status of SEL Assessment
CASEL has been very concerned, over the past number of years, about the quality of SEL assessment and evaluation tools in the field, and it just recently released a document on SEL Competency Assessments.
In fact, in the introduction of this document, CASEL states that,
“The field of SEL competency assessment is growing rapidly, and a
lot of promising research and development is underway. However, there is less consistency across frameworks and less clarity about terminology and developmental progressions than in more established fields.
Also, few SEL assessments have gone through the validation process typical of most large-scale academic assessments. . .
It is also important to consider that most SEL assessments were not specifically developed for the purpose of comparing schools, and little research exists to determine whether currently available assessments have the precision necessary to make such comparisons.”
_ _ _ _ _
Through this statement, CASEL acknowledges the relative dearth of valid SEL assessment and evaluation tools. And yet, in the three meta-analyses that CASEL researchers conducted and published to “validate” SEL outcomes, they included hundreds of studies that they now suggest might have used invalid assessment methods and instruments.
[See Blog, Part I for a critical history and analysis of these three meta-analyses.]
Thus, while CASEL critiques the current state of SEL assessment and evaluation, it nonetheless included studies that may have used poorly-selected and designed tools in the three meta-analytic studies that it most-often references to validate SEL.
All of this leads to a critical question: To what degree has CASEL created a “house of cards” with questionable research to advance its SEL political agenda?
_ _ _ _ _
CASEL’s Flawed Student Outcomes
CASEL’s targeted SEL student outcomes (Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making) are similarly flawed.
The most critical flaw is that CASEL’s outcomes are largely constructs, and not specific behaviors . . . and constructs cannot be reliably or validly measured because they are not discretely observable. In addition, CASEL provides no explicit science-to-practice guidance on how to translate its constructs into the cognitive-behavioral skills and scripts needed for student success.
The closest CASEL gets here is to publish a Program Guide of what it has determined are “effective” SEL programs (using criteria that fit its philosophy of what an SEL program should be). Unfortunately, given its program review and evaluation process, and the additional flaws and concerns described in this Blog (Parts I and II), there is no assurance that any of the CASEL programs will have a high probability of success— especially if they are predominantly focused on CASEL’s five constructivist outcomes.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
An Evidence-based, Field-tested, Science-to-Practice SEL (Alternative) Model
Project ACHIEVE is a comprehensive preschool through high school continuous improvement and school effectiveness program that has been implemented in urban, suburban, and rural districts across the country since 1990. One of Project ACHIEVE’s seven interdependent components is its Social and Emotional Learning/Positive Behavioral Support System (SEL/PBSS) component which includes The Stop & Think Social Skills Program. Another is its academic and behavioral multi-tiered service and support (MTSS) component. Project ACHIEVE, and its SEL/PBSS and MTSS components, has been recognized as an evidence-based program as described earlier in this Blog.
Relative to the current discussion, an effective multi-tiered SEL program should be based on a valid, field-tested science-to-practice model that has been implemented in multiple settings, with a diverse range of students and staff, and under a variety of challenges and conditions.
Critically, a model involves an explicit set of strategically scaffolded and sequenced actions, approaches, activities, and strategies that are needed for student, staff, and school success. While the sequence may be adapted to meet the strengths and resources, weaknesses and limitations, barriers and threats, and unique needs of a school or district, the model identifies what elements are prerequisite, essential, and non-negotiable—relative to the desired outcomes, and what elements can be substituted, modified, or adapted.
In contrast, a framework is a list of actions, approaches, activities, and strategies that a school or district may choose to implement, but they typically are not scaffolded or sequenced.
When schools or districts implement a framework, they are largely “choosing from the available menu.” Thus, if they only want to have “dessert” (for example, choosing the easiest or most popular items in the framework), that is up to them. In the final analysis, though, their choices may not lead to the outcomes that they need—even though they are “pleased” with what they have implemented.
Another limitation of a framework involves the challenge of evaluating and determining the efficacy of the framework.
Once again, if five schools in the same district use the same framework, but choose different activities or strategies to implement from the framework’s menu, the effectiveness of framework cannot be appropriately evaluated. This is because the evaluation needs to focus on how the specific activities or strategies contributed to each school’s outcomes. Here, you have five different assortments of activities or strategies. . . you are measuring “apples, oranges, bananas, pineapples, and kiwi fruit.”
This does not occur with Project ACHIEVE because, as noted above, Project ACHIEVE coordinates its multi-tiered activities and strategies across seven interdependent components in planned, proven, strategic, and sequenced ways.
_ _ _ _ _
The remainder of the Blog message describes:
· The five critical elements in Project ACHIEVE’s SEL/PBSS system that interdependently facilitate school discipline, classroom management, and students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management
· Some of the specific implementation activities within each element
· How the psychological science used in the SEL/PBSS system integrates to simultaneously address such issues as School safety and prevention, Positive school culture and classroom climate, Classroom discipline and management, Student engagement and self-management, Social Skills training and teaching 21st Century SEL/Soft Skills Productive student interactions in cooperative and project-based groups, Student trauma and trauma-sensitive practices, Teasing and bullying, Harassment and physical aggression, Chronic student absences and school/class tardiness, Office discipline referrals and suspensions/expulsions, Disproportionality and retiring zero tolerance policies, and Preventing and responding to students’ mental health status and needs
· The specific observable and measurable social, emotional, and behavioral skills taught by the Stop & Think Social Skills Program, and how cognitive-behavioral and social learning theory science-to-practice is used to teach these skills
· How a systematic strategic planning process is used to plan, resource, implement, and evaluate the entire SEL/PBSS process
Relative to this latter bullet, activities and strategies within Project ACHIEVE’s components and SEL/PBSS elements are systematically implemented across the four-year multi-tiered blueprint that (a) begins with an on-site Plan-for-Planning meeting (that includes the completion of a needs assessment, resource analysis, and strategic action plan); (b) continues by building on the effective practices and resources of the school or district; (c) involves reaching a consensus on the multi-tiered procedures— focusing not just on prevention, but also on the challenging students already identified and in need of immediate services—that all district schools will use; and (d) immediately builds in both short- and long-term evaluations of student, staff, and school outcomes to ensure that successes are sustained, and mid-course corrections are quickly implemented.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
The primary goal of this two-part Blog Series was to help districts and schools that are “looking for SEL in all the wrong places,” because they are placing too much trust in CASEL (and others’) public relations-driven SEL movement.
Indeed, too many districts and schools have already chosen incomplete, ineffective, and inconsequential (if not counterproductive) SEL strategies and approaches that are wasting classroom time, squandering schools’ precious resources, and undermining districts’ professional development decisions.
It’s time to take a Time-Out.
District and school leaders need to “take a breather” to look at what they are doing, planning, or considering within their SEL initiatives.
There is no pressure to implement anything right now.
In fact, at this point in the school year, most districts and schools should be strategically building their “SEL infrastructure” for implementation during the next school year.
And there still are many months available to build the right infrastructure . . . that will lead to quality implementation, and sustainable student, staff, and school results.
There are sound, field-tested, evidence-based SEL models that are separate from CASEL. Typically, they incorporate many of the constructs and global approaches advocated by CASEL, but they prevent or eliminate many of the CASEL flaws discussed in this two-part Blog.
Districts and schools need to strategically build their “SEL infrastructures” with these models. SEL is a noble and needed addition to our school and schooling process. It can directly address students’ social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs—from prevention to strategic intervention to intensive need/student crisis management.
As noted in the Introduction, all students need to learn, master, and apply effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills.
Let’s do it once. Let’s do it right. And let’s do it so that we can connect our student outcomes directly to our staff and school actions.
_ _ _ _ _
The Coming Federal School Climate Transformation Grant
At some point during the coming months, the U.S. Department of Education will announce the availability of the second School Climate Transformation Grant. The first Grant (June, 2014) resulted in awards to over 70 school districts nationwide for five years. Depending on the size of the district/school, the total Grant Awards ranged from $1 million to $4.5 million.
The coming Grant will focus on virtually all of the areas discussed in this two-part Blog series.
If you are interested in exploring the possibility of applying for this Grant, and including Project ACHIEVE’s SEL/PBSS/MTSS model as the foundation of your implementation, please contact me immediately.
For the first Grant, I helped 15 school districts write their grant proposals and two of these proposals were successful (in Michigan and Kentucky). I can write virtually the entire grant proposal for you, and guide you through the submission process.