Social and emotional learning (SEL), which focuses on teaching children soft skills like self-awareness, self-discipline, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, has gained popularity, with advocates pushing for curriculum changes in schools. With popularity, however, comes danger, warns a report by Michael McShane for the American Enterprise Institute. Starting from the belief that SEL proves valuable in the process of child development, McShane seeks to glean lessons from Common Core’s political struggles to offer advice to SEL advocates who wish to facilitate smooth and effective implementation.

He details four major lessons. First, advocates of the learning method should fine-tune the definition of SEL, leaving no room for ambiguity, and they should be sure to make stakeholders believe it’s a worthy cause to support. After explaining the challenges Common Core advocates faced, McShane writes “You can’t convince someone to support something if you don’t know what it is.” That said, he also mentions that advocates should do their best to ensure that parents, teachers, and local citizens know exactly what SEL is and why implementing it would be in their best interest.

Second, proponents should work actively with states and local education agencies to develop the capacity to successfully implement SEL. Although he admits that this may be the hardest step, he believes that this is the only way to accomplish a durable coalition of support for the approach. One of the reasons for Common Core’s struggles was that many states were implementing the standards before they had the capacity to take on all that the standards’ instructional shifts required, causing them to fall short of its promise. McShane encourages SEL advocates to ask themselves some questions before pushing adoption: Is there enough space in schools’ current curricula for SEL? Are educators fully equipped and prepared to teach it? Is there an agreed method for teaching it effectively? And does SEL fit the priorities that states, schools, and districts already have?

Third, McShane thinks it is imperative for proponents to beware of last-minute bandwagoners. Common Core suffered from all types of random, last minute “supporters” who ended up doing nothing more than tarnishing its name, such as publishers that slapped “Common Core–aligned” to textbooks that were nothing of the sort. He thinks SEL advocates should be ready and willing to call out companies and organizations that appear to have bad intentions.

His final lesson for SEL backers is to be cautious of how the approach is branded. Common Core was pitched with policymakers in mind, but quickly became a target for angry parents and teachers who did not like the approach the standards required. To avoid having that same target on its back, SEL needs highly selective branding.

McShane’s tips can be helpful in guiding advocates of social and emotional learning towards future success. Comparing it to Common Core, it’s clear that there are many unexpected ways things can go wrong. But if advocates are careful enough they can avoid many of the risks that arise when the popularity of a given policy grows.

SOURCE: Michael Q. McShane, “What social and emotional learning advocates can learn from Common Core,” American Enterprise Institute (May 2019).

Alexandria Myrick is a research intern with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and rising senior at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, where she is working toward a bachelor's degree in English. In addition to these roles, she is the longstanding president of the AAMU English club, a member of Sigma Tau Delta's international English honor society, and a writer for the Bulldog Times magazine.…

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