Business of Education: Social and Emotional Learning: What’s Next

The recognition that social and emotional learning (SEL) is on a par with academic achievement is growing in the education community. Less is known, however, about the best and most effective ways to integrate SEL into the classroom.

Publisher McGraw-Hill Education surveyed teachers, administrators, and parents on their knowledge of and attitudes toward SEL. ASBJ Editor-in-Chief Kathleen Vail interviewed Senior Learning Scientist Annie Snyder to learn more about what the survey revealed.

What prompted you to do a survey on SEL?

We maintain an ongoing commitment to supporting the art of teaching through the science of learning, by examining and understanding how learning occurs. In our ongoing review of learning science research, we have noted a growing call from researchers, across a wide range of disciplines, for stakeholders in education to address the critical importance of SEL in relation to overall student success.

While researchers have been studying aspects of SEL for decades, it is only quite recently that the impact of these skills on learning has been more formally recognized. As the body of research in this area continues to grow, and as we are gaining a stronger understanding of how social, emotional, and behavioral learning is deeply intertwined with academic learning, we felt that it was important to take the pulse of the current educational landscape in relation to SEL and its integration into school practice.

What are some of the important takeaways from the survey?

Perhaps one of the most powerful findings from this survey is that the field of education has already been transformed by research in SEL. The great majority of parents, teachers, and administrators indicated that they believe SEL and academic learning are equally important, and that development in these domains indeed go hand in hand. This represents an important step toward helping our schools address the needs of the whole child, including those areas that were once considered “soft.”

However, the survey also suggests that there are additional steps that need to be taken. For example, 65 percent of the teachers surveyed indicated they needed more available time to teach SEL, and more than half felt they needed additional professional development in this area. Similarly, results suggest that there is not yet consensus on which resources are best to use for teaching and assessing SEL.

These results also highlight areas for potential future work. For instance, while most stakeholders acknowledged the need for SEL instruction, it was less clear how they felt it should be integrated into existing school practice. Additional research in SEL will help us continue to refine our understanding of how to most effectively build SEL into overall student learning, both at school and at home.

Did anything from the results surprise you?

In existing research studies, it has proven interesting to examine the intersection of home and school in terms of SEL; this was true in this survey as well. Results indicated that fewer parents and caregivers were familiar with the term “social and emotional learning” than administrators and teachers. Once this term was defined for participants, only 38 percent of parents and caregivers said that these skills were taught in their children’s schools. This stood in sharp contrast to the 88 percent of administrators and 74 percent of teachers who stated that SEL was taught in schools.

Findings like this underscore the value of ongoing research since they offer helpful insight into areas of potential need. In this case, for example, the gap between parent and caregiver beliefs and educator beliefs tells us that we need to find ways to strengthen the home-school connection, not only in academic learning, but also within the domain of SEL. We know that many stakeholders in education, including ourselves, are already hard at work building creative and effective solutions for addressing these potential gaps. Together, we are working collaboratively and proactively to ensure we meet all students wherever they are in their learning, in every domain.

What is the most important message for school board members?

As the representatives of community values and standards for achievement, school board members shoulder a great many important responsibilities that are all tied to student success. This survey, taken together with existing research in the field, highlights the fact that student success should be defined according to more than just academic performance. As school board members develop policies, approve curriculum materials, and decide on which school programs to adopt, it will become increasingly important to consider how SEL should be factored into these decisions. Specific results from the SEL survey, such as the need for additional professional learning in SEL among teachers, can help inform the work of the school board.

On a side note, NSBA’s Center for Public Education’s report on studies of the characteristics of effective school boards ( strongly echoes studies of SEL among students. That is, effective school board members are highly skilled in social and emotional competencies such as defining and working toward clear goals, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and thinking from multiple perspectives. Given this, school boards, together with teachers, families, and administrators, can serve as excellent models themselves for developing and applying SEL skills.

What do we know about the connection between SEL and academic performance?

This is a terrific question! Evidence from a wide range of learning science studies is demonstrating SEL and academic performance are powerfully connected. For example, from a purely neurobiological standpoint, imaging studies of the brain have shown us that we process information from our senses and from our memories through multiple cognitive pathways—pathways that involve brain areas such as the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. These areas of the brain are responsible for emotion, behavior, and learning, so it makes logical sense that how we learn and perform academically is influenced by how we feel (and vice versa!). Other types of studies support this idea. For example, several widely cited studies and meta-analyses (examinations of multiple research studies) have demonstrated that when students receive SEL programming, they demonstrate significantly higher academic achievement as compared to peers who do not receive this programming. This difference can be as high as 13 percent, and the positive effects can last for many years (see Taylor, Oberle, Durlak, & Weissberg, 2017 and Durlak, 2011).

Teachers said they would like more professional development in SEL. What resources are available for districts?

Just as every individual student has different SEL needs, so too do teachers. Thus, it will be important to ensure that professional learning opportunities are well-suited for the specific needs of each teacher and the school overall.

In the survey, we explored what sorts of approaches and resources teachers were already using to build their knowledge of SEL; in-school training was the format that is currently provided most often, and teachers indicated that this was their preferred format as well. There are, of course, many other sorts of resources available in addition, ranging from professional learning communities, to books and articles, to online communities and coursework. All these formats can support effective SEL professional learning, and many schools are now opting to provide a wider range of resources for teachers.

It is worth noting that SEL scholars have begun studying how to optimize professional learning in this area. Research suggests that it is helpful to include several key components, such as assessing teachers on beliefs, knowledge, and comfort level throughout professional learning. Professional learning resources also should include practical and concrete strategies and activities for implementing SEL instruction in the classroom, so that we build a strong bridge between research, theory, and practice.

Finally, it is important to remember that SEL occurs throughout the lifespan, so it is important to ensure that teachers have opportunities to continue to develop their own SEL competencies even as they learn how to support such development among their students. This article from McGraw-Hill ( explains five guiding principles for building social and emotional learning into the school day.

Read the McGraw-Hill Education 2018 Social and Emotional Learning Report online at

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