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Shifting Gears: How SEL Can Help to Accelerate Learning

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It’s likely you’ve heard the phrase “learning loss” more in the past few months than you ever have before. While the phrase itself has been around for some time, it reached a five-year height in popularity as an online search term in April 2021, according to Google Trends. Often connected with summer vacation and phrases like “summer slide,” this loss of knowledge or reversal of progress typically occurs when formal education is interrupted for any number of reasons, from a scheduled school break to a significant absence from school (Great Schools Partnership, 2013).

Rarely has the disruption of traditional schooling been as widespread as it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic. A shared wondering and worrying about what the return to school as we’ve known it will look and feel like has contributed to the idea of learning loss as an issue that requires immediate, urgent, and sustained attention.

The truth of the matter is that, like so much of what we’ve collectively experienced since March 2020, we don’t yet know what it will feel like to be back in classrooms in the same way prior to the pandemic. What we do know, however, is that students can’t make meaningful academic progress without feeling a strong sense of safety, significance, and belonging in their school communities—that is, without the social and emotional support needed to learn (Jones, 2021). If we want to help accelerate students’ learning, we need to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) into our new vision of school (Darling-Hammond & Edgerton, 2021).

Students can’t make meaningful academic progress without feeling a strong sense of safety, significance, and belonging in their school communities.

What We Know

There’s a deep body of research that supports the positive impact of SEL on students. Studies have shown that students who participate in SEL programs based around a model of five core competencies have an academic performance that is on average 11 percentage points higher than that of their peers who did not participate in SEL programs (Durlak et al., 2011). We know that the positive influences of explicit SEL instruction can be detected up to 18 years later in academic achievement, behavior, and mental health (Taylor et al., 2017). SEL has a long-term impact on student well-being and success that extends far outside of the classroom. Students taught SEL skills in kindergarten show statistically significant connections to future education and employment success, and less involvement in crime and substance abuse (Jones et al., 2015).

Knowing how significant the connection is between SEL and student success is one thing, but putting that knowledge into action can be quite another. School leaders and teachers alike can take practical, concrete steps in schools and classrooms to begin creating the conditions for success with SEL.

What School Leaders Can Do

Building a strong school community is an important place to start, not only for students but for their families and educators as well. A sustained, supported culture of social and emotional learning and a high comfort level with frequent, explicit social-emotional learning in classrooms have been shown to lead to higher teacher commitment, both to the teaching profession and to a specific organization (Collie et al., 2011). Investing in training for educators, intentionally partnering with families, and committing to the ongoing work of including and being responsive to the needs of all learners are important steps for the “systemic and systematic” implementation of social and emotional learning that students and teachers need to be successful (Cipriano et al., 2020).

What Teachers Can Do

Because teachers already find it challenging to fit everything into the school day, they may be wondering how they will find the time for SEL without minimizing required academic skills and content. It’s equally important to teach social and emotional skills and academic ones, but you don’t have to choose one over the other. You can get to know students, learn what they need, and accelerate their learning by teaching academic, social, and emotional skills—A+SEL—at the same time.

What does it look like to teach A+SEL skills? Here are a few tips for ways you can embed social and emotional skills within your academic lessons:

  1. Help students believe in their potential. Use envisioning language, or language that helps students develop a vision of what is possible, to set a positive tone for future work. Engage children in problem-solving, and name positive identities for children. Envisioning language is particularly effective in situations when children are facing a challenge, academic or otherwise, as it can help them visualize a successful path to achieving a lofty goal. For more, read Overcoming Learning Challenges With Envisioning Language.
  2. Set high expectations. Adopting a challenge-based approach to your teaching and encouraging students to strive to meet high expectations can increase motivation and build community. You and your students will all be impressed by what they can achieve! For more, read Challenges Are Fun.
  3. Observe, observe, observe. One of the most powerful tools in your teaching toolbox is observation. Observing students as they work and relate to their peers provides valuable information that empowers educators to differentiate instruction, offer feedback to support learning, make shifts as needed, and be responsive to individual student needs. For more, read Using Observation to Enhance Learning.
  4. Get moving. Students learn best when they can be both active and interactive. By incorporating movement and social connection into your lesson design, you can give your students what they need developmentally to get the most learning from your teaching. Interactive learning structures such as Maître d’ are a great choice for learners of all ages. Download instructions for using the interactive learning structure Maître d’ with elementary students and with middle schoolers.


Emily Hemingway is editor in chief of CRS Publishing, where she works with a talented team of writers, editors, and designers to create practical SEL resources for educators. Prior to joining Center for Responsive Schools, Emily was a K–9 teacher and administrator in independent schools for fourteen years.

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