Commentary: Why SEL is here to stay in Delaware

Thanks to an increased focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), we’re witnessing an interesting convergence among education, business, scientific and local communities.

In the education world, SEL is about preparing our young people to go out into the world as healthy, caring, community-minded adults. It’s about creating safe and creative environments in schools so our kids can flourish. It’s about providing support and compassion to all kids. Roughly four out of every 10 Delaware public school students are now living in poverty. And when poverty is paired with issues like violence and addiction, it can not only impact a child’s ability to learn, but weigh heavily on their family and educators.

Brain science tells us SEL is foundational to learning. Think about anything you really learned as a child or an adult. Chances are you connected with it for a reason. The teacher was passionate, it was important to you, and/or the people you were with made it memorable. Learning, at its best, is social and emotional. We learn not by just being exposed to information, but by interacting with peers and teachers, by speaking, by reading the listener’s facial expression, and adapting. It’s this process of volleying back and forth that builds our understanding of the world.

Paul Herdman

We also know that the opposite is true. The absence of these interactions (and/or the introduction of high levels of stress and trauma) can actually adversely affect how a child’s brain grows. Experts are finding that these social and emotional factors can have lifelong impacts on our health and income. There is even promising research showing that children can overcome challenging circumstances with the right support from caring adults.

That’s why the business community is invested. Over the next eight years, Delaware will hire or replace around 30 percent of its workforce. The next generation of our workforce is on the way. So it’s up to us to provide them with not only the academic and technical skills, but those less tangible, “people skills”, like communication, problem-solving, drive, and persistence. That’s all a part of SEL. Employers tell us that they can teach the technical skills, but these 21st century skills are critical—and much more difficult to teach in adults, especially if they’ve spent more time with screens than people.

So whether you call it “soft skills” or “trauma-informed care” or “school climate” or “growth mindset” or any of the other terms we might use to talk about this work, SEL is a big umbrella.

As a state, we need to expand our definition of student success. To get on the same page, we need a common understanding of what we actually mean when we say “SEL,” and how SEL can be used to support students. It’s why Rodel spearheaded A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware, a report that focuses on the efforts underway across Delaware to support students, families, and educators in developing their SEL skills.

How do we do that? Based on our conversations with Delawareans, some solid next steps might include:

• Building broader awareness around SEL and how it impacts kids

• Creating more mental health supports for students, both inside schools and in the community

• Professional development and trauma training for educators and educators in-training

But the strongest and most consistent message we’ve heard is the need for deep and genuine community engagement. It seems like a simple ingredient, but it’s a crucial one. There will be opportunities in early 2019 to get involved and lend your perspective. In the meantime:

• Advocate for mental health supports in schools

• Teachers, check out the Compassionate Schools Test Lab for some promising practices

• Join a Delaware Readiness Team, and help your local community focus on the skills students need to succeed in kindergarten, including SEL

• Learn about how your child, your business, or school can get involved in career Pathways

• Get informed. Read A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware on RodelFoundationDe.org.

The more we reach across our fences and talk about SEL through the networks of schools and community centers and government agencies and healthcare providers, we start to see how all our work might fit together into a more comprehensive approach to collectively supporting our young people.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Herdman is president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware

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