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From Our SEL Field Notebook: A Conversation With SEL Researcher Dr. Stephanie Jones

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This month’s contributing editor Emily Hemingway recently spoke with Dr. Jones via Zoom to discuss her research projects, how COVID-19 has impacted SEL, and the power of educators to create the conditions for SEL in their classrooms. (Note: This has been edited for length and clarity.)

Emily Hemingway: You wrote in The Future of Children (2017) about SEL being at a crossroads, that there was great research but still this skepticism about whether SEL had a place in the classroom. In the past three years—and taking into consideration the pandemic—is SEL in a different place?

Stephanie Jones: That’s a good question. I feel like a few years ago, we were thinking, “There’s so much momentum, how do we turn the momentum into a movement?” Since then, more of the movement has been made clear. There’s been more interest and more demand and more engagement with the field about what the field can and is willing to do. So I do think it’s shifted. I think the pandemic just amped it up a whole lot. It got adults—parents in particular—thinking about the social and emotional life of their kids in relation to learning. I have two fears. One is that there’s so much worry—legitimate worry—about learning loss that when we finally do get back together and organized, all of the support and the social-emotional needs of children in general will be leapt over and the task of
addressing lost learning opportunities will be made more difficult because children will be struggling to a greater degree with all these other things. So I fear that this amplified worry about children’s social and emotional lives will be forgotten in the face of other kinds of pressures when those are allowed back in. And the other worry is that along the way we’ll forget what we’ve learned over this period, which is how important that social-emotional side of human life is and how integrated it is.

EH: That’s something we hear from teachers all the time, even now—there’s pressure, even when teaching remotely, to not lose ground in the face of everything else that’s going on.

SJ: Yes. I don’t know this for sure, but the natural connection making that teachers do with kids that often goes unacknowledged, maybe even by teachers themselves, got lost in the pandemic. Teaching remotely and connecting with families remotely—and maintaining some sort of connection or group remotely— as made the absence of natural connection making so present for them, something that they were naturally doing before. Parents are seeing it through watching children learn remotely and supporting them. And educators are seeing it because it’s something that was there, but now they have to actively promote it.

EH: It’s hard to describe what it feels like to create a positive community in your classroom and then all of a sudden not have it and not know how to create it online.

SJ: The intangibles of relationship making. It feels impossible because you can’t just create X or suddenly be prosocial or emotionally aware. Those things take time, and they’re subtle, and they’re in the everyday. SEL as a field, however critical, and however much progress it’s made, has never quite gotten to the nuanced part of it, the elemental, integrated, sort of everydayness of it.

EH: What would need to happen for that to become a reality?

SJ: I think that researchers have to become a little more responsive to how those in the field—parents and educators, kids of all ages—think and talk about and experience this world. In concrete terms, I think that means getting outside of some of the ways of thinking about SEL and about evidence that have gotten us a little stuck. SEL has made all this progress; there are programs, and they’ve been tested. And they’re evidence-based, which is great—but only a small number actually really fit that category. An evidence-based practice is not always resonant and responsive to what human beings are like, because when it was designed, it was designed by someone like me, and then it was tested in an RCT [randomized controlled trial], which is great, love those, do them all the time. However, it was done once and in a kind of artificial way; the field, though, is ever evolving. It’s not static, it’s changing. So the two don’t match up. In the lab, we’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with that problem for SEL, and it has something to do with integrating the kinds of things we think we know, working them into the everyday, and designing them so they’re super adaptable by those who are using them, while at the same time adhering to some central core ideas. Our idea is that you can come up with a set of kernel concepts, practices, or strategies that lift from the aggregated evidence: What are the things that are common to all the things that work?

EH: Responsiveness on the part of the teacher seems to be a crucial piece. It’s about really understanding what kids are struggling with or what they need and responding to that in the moment.

SJ: Right, exactly. I think two things are coming up. One is that educators need to have some choice and agency in what they do. It needs to be driven by them, because they’re the experts in the room. With support, educators need to be able to see what’s going on and select something that they think is meaningful and responds to the problem. The second thing is that there need to be supports for educators to take a sounding of the room: What are the things that are happening here that I’m worried about, and are there strategies that would line up with those things?

EH: That makes me think of SEL assessments. Do you hear a lot about assessment?

SJ: We hear about assessment all the time. People want to talk about it. And there’s lots of worry about it—and interest, too. We have so many tools: there are surveys, direct assessments, emerging kinds of performance-based tablet and computer tasks that self-report, to name a few. But 99.9 percent of these have been designed for research and used in research settings. And you have some of the old challenges—using a research tool to make a judgment about an individual. When you’re using a pool of research, you’re thinking about populations and averages. And when tools are then ported from that context into an applied context, where someone might say, “Gosh, you can use this and create a score, and then make a judgment about a child,” you’ve suddenly lost all of the kind of properties of the tool that allowed you to use it in one context. And you don’t know what those properties are in the other context. So it’s a problem. I actually think it’s quite dangerous, because you can’t really guarantee that what you’re seeing and determining about a child is actually anything about the child.

EH: What makes an effective assessment?

SJ: Ultimately, what we want to do is use assessment to make decisions about what to do. That should be the purpose. The purpose is not to make a judgment outside of a clinical setting about a child’s skill or performance, or a family’s, parent’s, or teacher’s as well. I think the other place where we’ve gone awry is we quickly jump to the child’s skills when what we really should be thinking about are the conditions in the setting. What are the concepts and supports and features of the setting that promote and support everybody to do what they need to do? Most of the world of SEL assessment is about kids, and not about settings or conditions. And that’s another place where we’re losing our way because it doesn’t drive effective action at all.

EH: Is it hard to measure the effectiveness of the setting?

SJ: There are many school climate, classroom climate, and culture and other climate surveys that get individuals’ perspectives on how a place is working, what the supports are, and what the practices are. And there are a growing number of observational tools that capture what adults and kids are doing in a setting. So what are the practices that are happening, and how are kids responding? SEL skills and competencies in individuals are obviously critical, but I’m not sure they wouldn’t be progressing just fine if we just thought about the settings and experiences that people were having, rather than about the things that they know and can do. Do you know what I mean?

EH: That’s how the Responsive Classroom approach was born!

SJ: That is the whole idea! Exactly. Set up the supports, help the adults to do a set of things that are both about them and about their room, and the kids will be fine. And those who need additional support—which also always happens —can get it, and adults will be seen more readily because there will be space for them and supports can be provided to them directly. So yes, Responsive Classroom is a great example.

EH: What other projects are you working on?

SJ: We have some really dorky interests. We do things that nobody really wants to do, like the taxonomy project, Explore SEL. It’s like a personal obsession to get everything lined up. We’re always thinking about how we make this more transparent, more usable. The idea behind the project at the beginning is different now, and we’re doing something we said we were never going to do, which was to think about whether or not there is a common set of core ideas that are the same across all the frameworks and ideas.

EH: That’s what I want to know!

SJ: I do, too. But our philosophy was that we’re not trying to create something else. What we’re trying to do is connect people who do this work in the field and who need to find ways to see what’s common and what’s different. And that’s still true. But we have a kind of shadow site that allows you to look at clusters of ideas, sets of algorithms that show you individual concepts, and their distance from each other based on the coding. Depending on where you toggle this set of dimensions, you see things coming closer together or moving apart, and in there is some kind of core set of ideas that are common to all of us, core developmental human phenomena that play out differently in different places, but that are also complements to ideas that are very local, very specific to different places.

EH: So the pandemic hasn’t slowed down any of your work.

SJ: What I’ve noticed is that there’s demand for stuff. People want support. There’s a lot of interest in SEL around the world, or at least it’s growing by leaps and bounds. And there’s a growing understanding that in settings of crisis and conflict and disruption, our educators, adults, and children really need support in this domain to ride out the disruption and engage in learning. But because the systems are so complex, and themselves so disrupted, like in a pandemic, there’s an understanding that there’s a need for something that is really nimble. So we came up with this idea of kernels that I mentioned earlier, which was highly appealing. We have a large number of projects that are thinking about the kernel concept in other places; for example, in Nigeria. There, the question becomes, “How do you know how Nigerians in the different regions of Nigeria think about SEL?” And the question then is, “What would you do with a kernel that resonates with that concept and is consistent with what we think we know about what works, at least here?”

EH: Can you create lessons that are universal? Or do you always keep that cultural context in mind?

SJ: I think you have to try. For individuals to feel committed, honored, relevant, and a part of something, one needs to go in asking the questions: “How do you think about this? And what do you do?” It’s basic humanness, honoring the existence of another. SEL, because of what it’s about, is best positioned to ask these questions. I do think that one has to enter into a community with these open questions and not make assumptions about what people are like and what they need. We just are obligated to do that.


References

Jones, S. M., & Doolittle, E. J. (2017). Social and emotional learning: Introducing the issue. The Future of Children, 27(1), 3–11. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/FOC-Spring-Vol27-No1-Compiled-Future-of-Children-spring-2017.pdf

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