As schools begin to reopen across the country, concern about student well-being is at the forefront of many conversations. Teachers’ voices in this conversation are critical. To gather perspectives from teachers on social and emotional learning (SEL), RAND Corporation conducted a survey in Spring 2019, collecting responses from more than 1,200 K-12 teachers via the American Teacher Panel. The findings are shared in a report released in November, Supports for Social and Emotional Learning in American Schools and Classrooms: Findings from the American Teacher Panel.
The study found that teachers felt confident in their ability to improve students’ social and emotional skills, but want more supports, tools and professional development in this area. Notably, RAND found a relationship between teachers’ sense of their own well-being and their use of SEL practices. The Wallace Blog sat down with the researchers, Laura Hamilton and Christopher Doss, to chat about these findings and more, putting them in the context of COVID-19 and school re-openings and shedding light on implications for school leaders and policymakers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
According to the report, many teachers felt confident they could improve students’ social and emotional competencies but that factors beyond their control had a greater influence on SEL than they did. What are those factors and is there research on their influence on student’s social and emotional well-being?
Hamilton: Thanks for that great question. I want to start by acknowledging that surveys are excellent for capturing broad trends and for collecting systematic data across different contexts, but getting the nuances often requires more in-depth, qualitative data collection. I think our findings raise a number of important questions like the one you just asked that could benefit from conversations with teachers and other educators to get the kinds of rich information that will really inform our understanding of these findings. That said, we know from research that SEL is influenced by a wide variety of conditions and experiences, both in and outside of school. Families, neighborhoods and community-based organizations all provide opportunities for children to develop relationships and to build competencies such as resilience and self-management. One specific example of a non-school influence that we've heard about from educators a lot recently is the news media. Students are exposed to news about protests against systemic racism or the negative effects of the pandemic, for example, which can influence their sense of well-being and identity. All of these non-school factors are inequitably distributed, with some students much more likely to experience high levels of toxic stress or limited access to supportive communities than others. The effects [of non-school factors] on SEL are well researched and have led to numerous efforts to promote SEL through partnerships between schools and other organizations. I think a nice example of that type of partnership is another Wallace project, the Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative, which brings together schools and afterschool programs to support SEL at the same time.
The report found that higher levels of teacher well-being were associated with greater use of SEL practices. Can you speculate as to why that might be and what the implications may be for school leaders and policymakers?
Doss: Like all of us, teachers who feel stressed and burned out may not be able to engage with others, including their students, as effectively as they can when their mental health is better. There is research that points to negative effects of teacher stress on student outcomes. And this relationship can be explained in part by teachers not engaging in practices that promote positive relationships with other aspects of SEL. In our study, we can't determine whether there is a causal relationship between teachers' well-being and their SEL practices. It is possible, but this relationship might also reflect other factors, such as positive school climate and high-quality principal leadership, which might both support SEL practices and teachers' sense of well-being. And so, the primary implication for education leaders and policymakers is that supporting educators at all levels in ways that promote their well-being and their ability to form supportive relationships with colleagues is likely good for everyone, including their students.
Can you talk a little about the disparities in SEL practices reported by teachers in lower-poverty schools versus higher-poverty schools and why these differences may exist, as well as how they may be addressed?
Doss: There are typically large differences in school funding and availability of higher-quality instructional resources between schools serving lower- and higher-income students. This could stem from differences in access to professional development and other SEL supports. It could also reflect greater pressure in high-poverty schools to emphasize academic achievement as measured by accountability tests, since these schools are more likely than affluent schools to be classified as lower-performing. To the extent that income is correlated with race and ethnicity, it is possible that students in higher-poverty schools don't have access to SEL instruction, materials or practices that they view as culturally appropriate for their students. We've heard a lot of concerns about the cultural appropriateness of materials from teachers across the U.S. Whatever the reason, it's clear that we need to pay attention to greater equity or resource allocation and development of materials and instructional strategies that meet the needs of a diverse student population.
Many teachers surveyed found the pressure to focus on student achievement made it difficult to focus on SEL. Do you think that pressure has shifted during the pandemic and distance learning, and if so, do you think this shift will have a permanent effect on making SEL a priority?
Hamilton: There's been other survey data that have been gathered from teachers, principals and school and district leaders during the pandemic, and they've indicated that educators view addressing SEL and other aspects of students' social and emotional well-being as a priority—sometimes a higher priority even than academics. It's not hard to understand why. Kids lost access to in-person relationships with trusted adults and with their peers. They weren't able to participate in some of the activities that they found really motivating and engaging. And many of them were living in homes that were characterized by high levels of stress stemming from job losses and overworked, homeschooling parents. There's been some national survey data on family concerns about COVID, and that has also raised the importance of the concerns about students' well-being beyond just academics. I think that there will be intense pressure to address learning loss, and so what teachers are going to need is a set of strategies, including professional development curriculum and instructional strategies, that they can use to promote SEL and to integrate it into their academic instruction.
What role should SEL play as children—and teachers—return to the classroom? And should SEL be a priority component of reopening plans?
Hamilton: Educators and families are telling us SEL should be a priority and it's important to listen to them. Clearly this is something we need to be paying attention to as schools start to look like something resembling normal. Reinforcing the message that SEL does not have to come at the expense of academic learning and that, in fact, they reinforce one another will be really important.
An interesting finding was that relatively few teachers were using digital resources to promote SEL pre-COVID. We also know that during the pandemic teachers prioritized finding ways to address SEL while they were teaching remotely. So it seems likely that there was a lot of learning that took place during this time very quickly, and that educators will be able to draw on their own efforts and those of their colleagues to promote SEL both in person and remotely.
One other thing I'll mention here is that it's important not to confuse SEL with mental health and to ensure that schools have the trained staff and other supports to address both. These things sometimes get mixed up together in the conversation, but SEL involves a set of competencies that all students and adults need to succeed and thrive. So, every student in our schools should have access to supports for SEL. But some students are going to suffer from anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, and they'll need supports from professionals who are trained to address those issues. We shouldn't expect classroom teachers to do all of that.
Did any of the findings surprise you in this report?
Doss: We looked at states that have [SEL] standards instituted and required versus those that did not, and then we also asked teachers, “Do you have standards that you're required to address?” We found that there was no correlation between what teachers did in the classroom and whether their states actually had standards, but there was a correlation between whether they thought they had to have standards and their practices. What this means is that the adoption of SEL standards in many states and districts can be a helpful lever for increasing SEL in school, but it's not likely to be effective if educators aren't aware of it. We have to not only think about instituting these standards, but then also making sure that educators are aware of them.
Hamilton: Another finding that surprised me was that we saw almost all teachers indicating fairly high levels of well-being on the three different measures that we administered. This conflicts a little bit with some of the other data that we've gotten from other sources about how stressful the teaching profession is and how many teachers were planning to leave even prior to COVID because of the stressful conditions that they were facing. I think what we're seeing is high levels of reported burnout.
At the same time teachers were saying they generally felt good while on the job, and that while they felt committed and felt valued by their colleagues, there was also this sense of impending burnout and stress that was affecting them. Of course, this was all prior to COVID, and we know that the job got significantly more stressful post-COVID. This reinforces the idea that we need to be paying attention, not just to students’ SEL, but to the well-being of the adults who are providing the instruction in the schools. I hope that [focus on adults] will be something that continues after COVID, and that once we go back to school, there will be more widespread efforts to make sure that teachers are feeling good about the work that they're doing.