What is social and emotional learning?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Two developments in the mid-1990s brought the term social and emotional learning (SEL) into widespread use in the education world.

In 1994, an organization called Collaboration to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was created, and its first conference was widely attended by both researchers and educators.

The term essentially entered the public domain in 1995 with the publication of psychologist Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ.

CASEL, which started at Yale University and is now based in Chicago, defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Trauma-informed education is a method of promoting social and emotional learning. It has its roots in the groundbreaking 1998 ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study by the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization in California and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

District finds that creating more trauma-informed schools requires a change of culture

The study found that adverse childhood experiences such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, having an incarcerated household member, and domestic violence led to adverse health outcomes.

The study population involved a largely middle-class population, but educators found the study particularly relevant for high-poverty areas where students tended to have high “ACE scores.”

To cite just one example, a 2011 study headed by California pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris showed a high correlation between ACEs and learning problems.

Two years earlier, a study of Spokane public school students directed by Washington State University researcher Chris Blodgett found that “the 248 kids with three or more ACEs had three times the rate of academic failure, six times the rate of school behavior problems, and four times the rate of poor health compared with children with no known trauma.”

Proponents of trauma-informed education talk about replacing the question “What’s wrong with you?” with “What happened to you?” if a child is displaying behavior issues or learning problems.

More recently, educators have additionally placed emphasis on creating entire trauma-informed schools, including coping with secondary trauma that teachers may suffer from dealing with a highly traumatized student population. In other words, they are seeking better solutions to teacher stress than a broom closet.

As Research for Action stated in its 2019 report: “Proponents of trauma-informed education emphasize that the approach is not simply an additional program that fits on top of or into an existing school structure. Rather, it is an entirely new systemic approach that impacts every aspect of school operations and personal interactions. “