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Analysis: Social-emotional learning is important. But what do all those SEL terms, concepts & ideas actually mean for the classroom? New online tool helps sort them out

Stephanie Jones | December 4, 2019

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EASEL Lab, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is on the map. There is solid evidence that SEL matters a great deal for important life outcomes including success in school, college entry and completion, and later earnings. We also know that SEL can be taught and nurtured in schools, resulting in significant impacts such as improvements in classroom functioning and organization, students’ ability to learn and get along with others, and increases in academic achievement.

Although the term “social and emotional learning” is not new, and has, in fact, been around for years, a growing evidence base has recently driven a tremendous surge in interest in this area — particularly among parents, educators and policymakers. Yet, amid a wide array of effective programs and approaches to draw upon, challenges still remain. One major area of ongoing concern is that SEL goes by many names, and the terminology can be confusing and misleading, ultimately impeding efforts to achieve meaningful results.

Common ways of describing the field include character education, personality, 21st century skills, soft skills, and noncognitive skills. Each label draws from a slightly different theoretical perspective and employs different pieces of research, and each has its own related fields and disciplines. Moreover, major players in the field have put forward competing organizational schemes or frameworks that often use different or even conflicting terminology to describe similar sets of skills. The result is what has been described as the “jingle and jangle” problem, which refers to the use of a single term to mean many different things (jingle) or multiple terms to mean the same thing (jangle).

This wide array of terms, concepts and ideas is not a bad thing in itself. Indeed, it makes for a broad, rich and vibrant field overall. The challenge is that inconsistent terminology makes it difficult to communicate clearly about what’s important and to make decisions about the right strategies and approaches to use in practice. In short, without a way to make sense of the words, it’s easy to misinterpret, overgeneralize or overlook the hard science that links evidence to strategies, and strategies to measurement and evaluation. The result could be cherry-picking teaching practices, interventions and assessments that may or may not be related to each other — or to the desired outcomes.

To address this challenge, the EASEL Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education created Explore SEL. This website and set of tools is designed to show relationships among different skills, terminology and frameworks(organizing systems that communicate which skills and competencies are important, and that serve as a roadmap or guide for policy and practice),organizing, describing and connecting them across disciplines in a way that is agnostic to brand and sensitive to development and context.

Explore SEL includes the following interactive tools, with more to be added in the future:

● Compare Domains: See which domains, or broad skill areas common to the field of SEL, are emphasized in different frameworks; see all frameworks at the same time and identify broad trends in the field;

● Compare Frameworks: See where skills, competencies, behaviors in one framework relate to those in other frameworks; select any two frameworks from the database and compare them side by side;

● Compare Terms: See where specific skills like conflict resolution, attention, empathy, self-efficacy and critical thinking are included across all the frameworks in the database; select any skill(s) and identify its prevalence; and

● Thesaurus: See related terms, regardless of terminology and research tradition or discipline (whether the term is common to the study of early childhood vs. adolescent and youth development, or SEL vs. character education, etc.); select any skill or term in the database and see a list of related terms in order of similarity.

Ultimately, Explore SEL will provide education decisionmakers with a way to sort through frameworks and terminology to make sense of existing information, allowing them to better align strategies and goals to achieve real impact. As efforts to build social, emotional and related skills are integrated into schools, practitioners, policymakers and funders need to know which skills are important, what they are called and how they relate to one another, in order to focus on the skills and approaches to SEL that best meet their students’ needs. The tools are designed to help stakeholders in the field select, adapt or develop organizing frameworks that will guide their SEL efforts in ways that make clear the skills they intend to address, ultimately enabling greater alignment among those target skills, the strategies used to build them and the measures used to assess them.

To this end, Explore SEL encourages and supports users to (a) reflect on the goals, priorities and needs of their target population and setting; (b) identify, compare and align relevant skills and frameworks; and (c) think about which types of strategies and measures will best fit the skills they have identified as important. For example, school and district leaders can use the site to better understand the subtle nuances and differences between various frameworks in the field in order to select one that guides their approach to SEL in ways best aligned with their specific goals and needs.

Similarly, policymakers can use the site to explore which skills appear across multiple frameworks and how they are related to ensure that SEL standards don’t focus too narrowly on a particular skill area while missing others that matter for children’s success. At the same time, the site can help researchers, funders and program evaluators be more clear and precise in how they understand and define the skills being targeted by a particular program or intervention, thus increasing the likelihood that their evaluation, measurement and assessment strategies are closely aligned with the target skills and outcomes on which they should reasonably expect to see impact.

This is an important moment for SEL — interest is high, and promising approaches abound. But poor communication and coordination threaten to undermine efforts. Now is the time to take advantage of the current energy to drive forward more precise, careful and transparent work that will maximize impact. Explore SEL is designed to make it easier for educators, policymakers and researchers to be intentional about the skills and outcomes that are best aligned with their mission and goals, and to identify frameworks, programs and strategies that effectively meet their needs and enable them to achieve results.

Stephanie M. Jones is the Gerald S. Lesser professor of early childhood development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, director of HGSE’s EASEL Lab and co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

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