Why “Do” SEL If It Doesn’t Improve Student Behavior in the Classroom and Across the School?
Focusing on Individual and Group Skills to Enhance Student Engagement and Cooperative Group Outcomes
I am not a big “label” or “program” guy when it comes to school discipline programs.
In general, the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all “programs” marketed to schools and districts are often poorly researched, they pull “magical data” out of a hat to allegedly “prove” the program’s “success,” and they over-sell and under-deliver.
Moreover, many programs’ “successful” outcomes usually are NOT due to the program as a whole, or to the program at all. That is, the successes are either due (a) to some (usually unidentified) small part of the program; or (b) to the fact that school faculty have committed to clear student outcomes and, as such, they are interacting with students in more consistent, goal-directed, and observable ways, respectively.
Finally, even when positive outcomes occur, most programs rarely work dependably in schools that vary significantly across different and diverse historical, demographic, and other background characteristics and conditions relative to their students, staff, neighborhoods, and communities.
Most programs also have difficulty attaining and sustaining the needed buy-in and involvement of a critical mass of staff, the fidelity of their implementation, and the resources, training, and coaching needed for success.
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Relative to labels: The name of a program typically is chosen to enhance its marketability. . . to demonstrate that “We are different from the others who came before us”. . . “We are better than those before us”. . . and “If you join our movement, we can lead you to the Promised Land.”
Early in my career, schools simply talked about school safety and discipline, classroom management and engagement, and student behavior and self-control.
Then—starting in 1997, and still to this day—the U.S. Department of Education began its multi-million dollar investment in “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” (PBIS).
Rather than calling PBIS a “program,” it marketed itself as “new and different” by organizing its strategies in a “framework.”
But that didn’t work, because districts and schools used the strategies in the framework as a “fruits to nuts” framework menu—simply choosing the strategies that they wanted to do (rather than what they needed to do), and ending up with initiatives that did not produce real, observable, and sustainable student outcomes—especially with challenging or very challenging students.
Indeed, over the years, objective program evaluations of PBIS—some funded (and then hidden) by the U.S. Department of Education—have shown that most PBIS schools:
- Implement only at the Tier I level—never getting to Tier II or Tier III levels where the challenging students “live;”
- Rarely sustain their implementation for more than three years—at which time, the faculty kick the framework “to the curb,” and search for something “new;” and
- Eventually realize that they could have produced real student outcomes with fewer resources, less time, and without the need for unnecessary rituals (like having to quiz students and staff about “our three primary PBIS “pillars”).
For the past decade or more, the U.S. Department of Education has tried to maintain PBIS’s relevance by creating “PBIS apps” to “fix” many of the most pressing social, emotional, or behavioral challenges in our homes and families, neighborhoods and communities, and in our society at-large.
This includes school climate and safety, teasing and bullying, multi-tiered services and mental health, disproportionality and racial equity, poverty and parenting, and school shootings and pandemic relief.
It has not worked. . . largely because PBIS comes historically from a special education—and not a multi-dimensional psychological—foundation, and because it focuses more on eliminating student deficits, rather than teaching and motivating student strengths.
Indeed, the PBIS National Technical Assistance Center has always been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.
And, PBIS’s “benchmark” outcome has consistently been to decrease students’ office discipline referrals. . . rather than the development of preschool through high school students’ social, emotional, and behavioral skills, self-management, and competence.
Said a different way: The school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management goal for all districts and schools should be the developmentally-sensitive and differentiated teaching of students’ behaviorally-observable interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills. . . across the multi-tiered continuum of student needs and challenges.
Social-Emotional Learning: The “Next Kid” on the Block
Not long after PBIS began its U.S. Department of Education-marketed push into schools across the country, a group of psychologists used Emotional Intelligence as a foundation to establish the “Social-Emotional Learning” framework (Yes. . . yet another framework and menu).
At this point, virtually everyone in education “knows” the term SEL—even though, according to Harvard University’s Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory and Education Week, no one really knows what SEL is.
Indeed, Harvard’s EASEL Lab identified more than 40 different SEL frameworks a few years ago, concluding that “SEL is in a state of confusion.”
And this state of confusion has not changed as Education Week recently noted (December 19, 2022):
"Immerse yourself in the world of social-emotional learning, and one thing quickly becomes clear: What, exactly, social-emotional learning is can be hard to pin down, and people often resort to analogies and examples to explain it.
And. . .
(While) educators say they recognize the importance of developing students’ social and emotional skills, such as managing emotions and setting goals. . . they feel that in order to teach academic subjects effectively, there is little time for social-emotional learning lessons.
A recent EdWeek Research Center survey polled teachers, principals, and district leaders nationally and found . . . (that) the biggest (SEL) barriers remain educators’ usual foes: time is too short, students’ needs are too big, and there are not enough resources."
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Attempting to clarify the confusion over “what SEL is,” Education Week asked seven national SEL experts to define social-emotional learning (December 22, 2022).
From the President and CEO of CASEL, to district directors of SEL and MTSS, to (again) the Director of Harvard’s EASEL Lab, the answers were confusing, sometimes contradictory, laden with jargon, classroom and teacher un-friendly, and all across the galaxy.
Quite honestly, Education Week’s attempt to “clarify the confusion,” only escalated the confusion.
But one of the root causes of this confusion is that so many organizations, companies, consultants, and others are trying to “carve out” their piece of the “SEL pie.”
And while the U.S. Department of Education created the PBIS pie, the SEL pie was largely baked by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that launched its movement using power and politics, and foundations and their funds. Critically, one of CASEL’s primary “services” is to lobby at both the state and federal levels to influence different state’s educational strategic planning processes in the areas of social-emotional learning.
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Indeed. . . what many educators don’t know is that SEL’s popularity evolved because its founders courted wealthy foundations, powerful movers and shakers, influential members of the U.S. Congress, and state politicians . . . and that many of the large districts working with CASEL have paid for its consultative services (some as much as $150,000 per year).
Again, historically: Knowing that the leaders of PBIS had the U.S. Department of Education in their pocket, the SEL leaders went a different route by targeting individual states. One of CASEL’s goals was to successfully codify SEL “standards” in state education or related laws, regulations, or in benchmark White Papers.
And the primary foundation to the SEL leaders’ argument—initially—were three meta-analytic studies that appeared to demonstrate how a wide variety of different “social and emotional programs” had a positive impact on students’ “social-emotional outcomes” (which were similarly diverse and wide-ranging) and academic achievement, respectively.
But there were (and are) significant methodological problems with these three studies which we have previously discussed.
Social-Emotional Learning is Education’s Newest Bandwagon: The History of How We Got There and Why Most Schools are Wasting Time and Resources by Implementing Scientifically-UnSound SEL Practices
[CLICK HERE for this Past BLOG]
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Briefly, among a number of concerns, these three meta-analytic studies:
- Are correlational—not causal—in nature.
They only demonstrate that some schools that implemented social-emotional programs—among a wide variety of other school discipline, classroom management, and student behavior approaches—had a higher probability of showing social, emotional, behavioral, and academic student outcomes (versus schools without these programs).
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- Only one of the three studies was objectively reviewed by an independent panel of peer-experts (and was subsequently published), while the earliest paper “published” by CASEL co-mingled the three studies.
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- The only formally published study had significant methodological flaws that call its results into question.
The most critical flaw—relative to generalizing the study’s results to U.S. schools—was that 46% (38 of 82) of the studies used in the meta-analysis were in non-American schools.
Beyond this, the authors reported that an unspecified number of the 82 studies were taken from books and were not published in refereed journals.
Finally, the authors also reported that (a) 34% of the studies did not use a randomly-selected sample; (b) 18% of the studies reported “significant implementation problems;” (c) 27% and 45% of the studies either did not have (or did not report) reliable or valid outcome measures at follow-up; and (d) 28% of the studies collected their outcome data only from the students and not also from teachers and/or administrators.
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While CASEL continues to highlight research that demonstrates that SEL “works” (I recently received a CASEL Newsletter headline “New Research”), here is the bottom line:
- As noted above, NONE of the meta-analytic or single-focused research studies can validate “SEL” when there are 40 or more different SEL frameworks, and there is confusion as to what SEL “is.”
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- None of the studies collectively validates a specific SEL program or SEL implementation process; and none validates an approach on how to effectively select, resource, prepare for, implement, or evaluate a specific SEL program.
(Indeed, CASEL publishes a resource of “effective” SEL programs that are selected based on CASEL’s own criteria, and that often identify programs that have only one study demonstrating a specific program’s efficacy.)
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- CASEL is using the research to its own self-serving benefit.
CASEL promotes its own framework (which it recently modified without showing any research to support the modification), and it often highlights research that appears to “validate SEL” in a way to suggest that its framework is valid.
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Please understand: I fully believe, from a research-to-practice perspective, that teaching students to apply learned and mastered social, emotional, and behavioral skills to school and classroom interactions does contribute to academic engagement and achievement, and social-emotional self-management and proficiency.
But this occurs, as noted earlier, because districts and schools are teaching students, in a developmentally-sensitive and differentiated way, behaviorally-observable interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills. . . across the multi-tiered continuum of student needs and challenges.
What Should Districts and Schools Do?
Summarizing psychological and behavioral science, sprinkled with forty-plus years of working successfully with students and staff in thousands of schools across the country, the “goal statement” in the paragraph immediately above can only be accomplished by the following:
- Schools need to identify the observable, teachable, and measurable behavioral skills—including thoughts—that students need to demonstrate to be socially successful.
The skills need to be practical and school-specific. . . the individual, small group, and large group skills that students need to be successful in the classroom and across the school.
The thoughts related to students’ attributions. . . the attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and interpretations. . . that positively support students’ efforts and successes, as well as to how they respond to challenging situations, disappointments, or even “failures.”
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- Schools need to teach students how to demonstrate their skills under conditions of emotionality.
At times, academically, students have mastered the content and skills needed to “pass the (proficiency) test,” but they are not confident (they don’t “believe they can succeed”) and/or they are unable to handle the pressure. And thus, they underperform or even “fail.”
One of our scientific principles is that “Mastery is attained when students can demonstrate their skills under conditions of emotionality.”
Hence—just like an athlete, a doctor in an Emergency room, a performer on stage—students need to learn how to demonstrate their social and interpersonal skills under adverse or stressful circumstances.
This is a learned skill that needs to be practiced by preschool through high school students.
That is, just like the basketball coach who has the team run different plays for the “last seconds of a game” during practice, students need to roleplay their social skills under simulated levels of stress.
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- The skills, attributions, and ability to perform “under pressure” need to be taught in consistently positive and supportive settings by staff who are consistent and teaching with fidelity.
Here, the instruction should include strategies to “transfer the training” so that students can demonstrate their skills more and more independently in real-life situations.
They also include motivational (especially, self-motivational) approaches that complement the instruction. These systems employ the positive responses and periodic incentives (that are faded out over time) that reinforce appropriate or progressively appropriate behavior.
They also include consequences paired with re-teaching, restitutional, and/or restorative practices when students make “bad choices,” and consistent administrative responses (by school principals) when inappropriate behavior is persistently disruptive, physically harmful, or dangerous.
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- Finally, supported by related services/mental health professionals (in the district or out in the community), schools need to have an accessible multi-tiered continuum of services, supports, and interventions for students with mild to significant social, emotional, behavioral, and/or mental health challenges.
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I know that this appears to be a lot.
But this is the science-to-practice that works.
And we have demonstrated that the actions and strategies within each of the bullets above can be reasonably implemented and sustained with commitment, planning, and the right training and resources in one to three-year school-wide effort.
[Link HERE to Three Free Resources from the Project ACHIEVE Store with will the information you need to succeed:
Evaluating School-wide Discipline/Positive Behavioral Support Systems: Three Years of Sequenced Implementation Activities
The Stop & Think Social Skills Program: Exploring its Research Base and Rationale
A Multi-Tiered Service & Support Implementation Blueprint for Schools & Districts: Revisiting the Science to Improve the Practice
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Bottom Line: Schools do not have the time, the staff, or the resources to waste on approaches that will not work, that might delay needed services and supports to students, and/or that could make existing problems worse or more resistant to change.
Indeed, as in the title of this Blog, why would districts and schools implement “SEL programs” that don’t improve students’ collaboration and interactions in classrooms and across other settings in their schools?
Drilling Down with a Few More Specifics
Let’s take two of the “bullet areas” above, and provide more specific research and practice examples.
Examples of Practical Individual and Group Social Skills
Below are some of the practical and school-based social skills taught in our evidence-based Stop & Think Social Skills Program.
- Following Directions
- Using Nice Talk
- Contributing to Discussions
- Asking and Answering Teacher Questions
- How to Interrupt
- Asking for Help
- Asking for Permission
- Waiting for an Adult’s Attention
- Waiting for Your Turn
- Joining an Activity
- Beginning and Ending a Conversation
- Ignoring Distractions
- Apologizing/Excusing Yourself
- Accepting Consequences
- Asking and Answering Questions
- Setting and Evaluating Goals
- Avoiding Trouble/Conflict Situations
- Deciding Whether to Follow the Group
- Dealing with Peer Pressure
- Being Honest/Acknowledging your Mistakes
- Dealing with Teasing
- Dealing with Being Rejected or Left Out
- Dealing with Losing or Not Attaining Desired Goals
- Showing Understanding of Another’s Feelings/Empathy
- Dealing with and Responding to Another Person’s Anger or Emotionality
- Walking Away from a Fight/Conflict
- Negotiating to Resolve Conflicts Peacefully and Productively
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Examples of (additional) skills that students in small cooperative or project-based groups need to learn and demonstrate include:
- Listening to Peers with an Open Mind
- Remaining On-Task
- Doing Your Share
- Taking Turns
- Interacting Positively with Each Other
- Ensuring that All Group Members Contribute
- Problem-Solving and Compromising when needed
- Setting goals
- Asking Clear Questions
- Identifying Roles for Group Members
- Being a Good Leader/Follower
- Checking with Others for Consensus
- Communicating Clearly/Asking for Clarification when needed
- Awareness of Other Group Members’ Emotions
- Verbalizing One’s own Challenges/Emotions
- Knowing When and How to “Check Out” Others’ Emotions
- Managing Time Effectively
- Giving/Accepting Compliments
- Standing Up for Your Position/Rights
- Knowing When/How to Agree, Disagree, and Agree to Disagree
- Dealing with Disappointment or Failure
[See MORE Skills in our Previous Blog:
What Social, Emotional, Attributional, and Behavioral Skills Do ALL Students Need from an SEL Initiative?
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What is the Science-to-Practice for Teaching Social Skills?
As validated in research beginning with Bandura’s Social Learning Theory in 1977 and continuing through analyses by Harvard University’s Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory, there are five essential steps when successfully teaching students social skills.
- Teaching the steps and related behaviors/interactions of a desired social skill.
- Modeling the steps and the social skills language (or script).
- Roleplaying the steps and the script with students in a classroom- or school-related scene or scenario.
- Providing Performance Feedback to the students relative to how accurately they are verbalizing the skill script and how successfully they are behaviorally demonstrating the new skill.
- Transferring and Applying the skill and its steps as much as possible during the day to reinforce the teaching over time, in different settings, with different people, and in different situations.
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When Teaching and Modeling, teachers need to make sure that students:
- Have the prerequisite skills to be successful
- Are taught using language that they can understand
- Are taught in simple steps that ensure success
- Hear the social skills script as the social skills behavior is demonstrated
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When Practicing or Roleplaying, teachers need to make sure that students:
- Verbalize (or repeat or hear) the steps to a particular social skill as they demonstrate its appropriate behavior
- Practice only the positive or appropriate social skill behavior
- Receive ongoing and consistent practice opportunities
- Use relevant practice situations that simulate the “emotional” intensity of the real situations so that they can fully master the social skill and be able to demonstrate them under conditions of emotionality
- Practice the skills at a developmental level that they can handle
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When Giving Performance Feedback, teachers need to make sure that the feedback is:
- Specific and descriptive
- Focused on reinforcing students’ successful use of the social skill, or on correcting an inaccurate or incomplete social skills demonstration
- Positive—emphasizing what was done well and what can be done well (or better) next time
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When Transferring or Applying Social Skills after Instruction, teachers need to make sure that they reinforce students’ prosocial skills steps and behavior when they:
- Have successfully demonstrated an appropriate social skill
- Have made a “bad” choice, demonstrating an inappropriate social skill
- Are faced with a problem or situation but have not committed to, nor demonstrated, a prosocial skill
- Must use the skill in situations that are somewhat different from those used when the skill was originally taught and practiced
[See RELATIVE INFORMATION in our Previous Blog:
The SEL Secret to Success: You Need to “Stop & Think” and “Make Good Choices” - Project ACHIEVE
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What Conditions Help Schools to Effectively Implement a Social Skills Program?
Harvard University’s EASEL Laboratory, among a select group of other researchers and practitioners have identified some critical school conditions that facilitate the implementation of a school-wide social skills initiative.
- Facilitate ownership and buy-in
- Ensure sufficient staff support, training, and coaching
- Allocate the time needed to implement the program effectively and with fidelity
- Extend social skills learning and application beyond the classroom into the common areas of the school
- Provide opportunities for students and staff to apply and transfer social skills and strategies to real-life situations
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Some additional “common characteristics” noted are that the school-wide initiative:
- Establishes and maintains safe and positive settings and interactions for children and adults
- Supports the development of high-quality relationships between children and adults
- Is developmentally, demographically, and culturally sensitive, relevant, and engaging for children
- Provides opportunities for direct skill building, feedback, mastery, and application
This Blog began by encouraging districts and schools to address their school safety and discipline, classroom management and engagement, and student behavior and self-control needs by focusing on observable and measurable student outcomes. . . rather than pre-packaged and marketed programs that change their labels to appear “new and improved.”
We specifically provided the history, research, and questionable (if not, poor and unsustained) outcomes from the PBIS and SEL frameworks.
From a psychological research-to-practice perspective, we emphasized that schools anchor themselves on the following goal:
The developmentally-sensitive and differentiated teaching of students’ behaviorally-observable interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills. . . across the multi-tiered continuum of student needs and challenges.
To accomplish this, we detailed the needed science-to-practice components, social skills, instructional approach, and school and staff implementation characteristics needed for school success.
Schools do not have the time, the staff, or the resources to waste on approaches that will not work, that delay needed services and supports to students, and/or that could exacerbate existing problems.
As in the title of this Blog, why would districts and schools implement “SEL programs” that don’t improve students’ collaboration and interactions in classrooms and across other settings in their schools?
Why are we hanging onto frameworks that have never objectively demonstrated consistent (across 90 or more percent of the implementing schools), sustained (more than three years), and multi-tiered success (i.e., PBIS).
And why are schools “doing SEL” based on meta-analytic research that does not causally validate specific universal SEL practices, that is being used to advance the interests of an independent—even if non-profit—company (i.e., CASEL), and that reflects over 40 different frameworks with leaders who have widely different definitions of “SEL”?
We can and must “get back to the psychological basics.” We can and must do better in this important area supporting education.
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As we begin this “next stretch” of the school year, I hope that the thoughts above, and the resources provided (both our FREE Monograph or Papers, and our past Blogs) are helpful to you.
Significantly, we are only half-way through the school year. There is plenty of time to make the mid-course corrections needed to make this an incredibly successful school year.
If I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me—especially in the areas discussed above.
I am currently the “National Consultant” on three five-year federal School Climate Transformation Grants—which have me in the participating school districts approximately 40 days per year. So. . . I am partnering in these school discipline areas all of the time.
If you are already thinking about next year, know that I help many schools and districts to map out their futures—for example, in the areas of (a) school improvement, (b) multi-tiered (including, special education) services and supports, and (c) interventions for challenging students.
Feel free to contact me to begin this process.
[CLICK HERE to read this Blog on the Project ACHIEVE Webpage]