Social Emotional Learning no Substitute for Quality Teachers

March 05, 2016

Many school systems are implementing system-wide social emotional learning (SEL) as a part of regular education instruction.  Some are also using measures, tests, to determine if the SEL is working. In a very recent New York Times article, Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills by Kate Zernike (2/29/16) it is reported that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) will soon include measures of SEL.  According to the article, experts in the field are rightfully worried that the term SEL and its testing may be flawed and such testing should be addressed with extreme caution. Some also believe that SEL instruction is being interpreted as almost anything that is non-academic including effective classroom management techniques (such as the good behavior game). Others feel that some SEL instruction may be insufficient in improving attention and active learning when schools and their communities are both stressed and under-resourced.  

“There are so many ways to do this wrong,” said Camille A. Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago who is working with a network of schools across the country to measure the development of social-emotional skills. “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.”  Classroom management strategies and SEL compliment each other and both may improve engaged attention and improved academic learning. They are not substitutes for highly proficient teachers, high academic expectations and adequately resourced schools. Furthermore, like academic instruction, SEL must be delivered with fidelity to “best practices” required by the curriculum’s authors. Let us make sure that we approach SEL student measurement with extreme caution!



Kevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007 the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000 he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.

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