A recent survey of 884 public school principals showed high rates of commitment to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), but low levels of understanding of how to encourage it or assess it.
“There’s an elevated sense of urgency about developing a plan for SEL without a lot of expertise on how to do it,” said Karen Niemi, CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which conducted the survey of K-12 principals.
Kate Stringer, reporter for the 74 Newsletter, wrote: “While most principals believe that social-emotional skills should be measured, only 17% reported knowing which assessments they could use. Only one-quarter of principals are using the assessments for all their students.”
But many principals are still skeptical that the assessments are helpful. Only 40% reported them to be very or even fairly useful, and only 16% think their teachers know how to use the assessment data to help their students.
“How do you actually do it? That’s something we’re working really hard on,” said Niemi. The problem is that social and emotional skills—as parts of a person’s overall character—aren’t learned by rote, or even by commitment. They are formed by practice and absorbed through culture.
CASEL has been working on ways to measure social-emotional skills, but the many barriers to successful measurement include the absence of a consistent definition of SEL and programs that can scale across America’s diverse districts.
The challenge is that there isn’t a formula for formation of social-emotional learning. It is nearly impossible to turn into a program what happens as a continuing process. Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture founder, sociologist James Davison Hunter, writes in The Death of Character: “Character is not . . . solitary, autonomous, unconstrained; merely a set of traits within a unique and unencumbered personality. Character is very much social in its constitution. It is inseparable from the culture within which it is found and formed.”
As the principals surveyed demonstrated, educating and responding to emotions are important skills. The emotions play a critical role in performance, civic, and moral character that can lead us to good decisions about right and wrong actions in different circumstances. Educators and parents can learn more about helping students with their emotions in this lesson from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.