Students continue to face a troubling array of challenges—ranging from school shootings to racial discrimination to housing and food insecurity—all amid an ongoing pandemic. A 2022 CDC survey found that more than 4 in 10 adolescents reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rates of youth suicide continue to increase as students face trauma, stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, disappointment, and loss. These troubling statistics reflect the extreme pressure our students are under as members of modern society—challenges that have only been exacerbated over the past few years. To help our students and communities through these difficult times, our nation should trust researchers, parents, educators, and students—who all agree that social and emotional learning, or SEL, is fundamental to child development at all levels.
Today, more than ever, students need support in developing social and emotional skills alongside academic skills. Yet SEL is under attack.
SEL supports the development of empathy, awareness of one’s own and others’ feelings, effective communication, and problem-solving. SEL is a form of the “life skills” that have been part of education for decades. It is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. Combining traditional academic programming and social-emotional skills has been shown to better prepare students to succeed in school and for life beyond high school graduation.
Despite unsubstantiated attacks against SEL and differences in views about terminology, large majorities of parents agree on the need for each of the skills associated with social emotional learning. A 2021 survey conducted by the Fordham Institute showed that parents across the political spectrum broadly support these skills being taught in schools. Among those surveyed, there was near unanimity that students’ social and emotional needs must be met in order for them to reach their full academic potential.
Teachers agree. Referred to by teachers as the “missing link” in education, social and emotional learning provides children with the tools they need to succeed academically and beyond. Backed by both research and popular support for its ideals, teaching SEL in schools provides a sensible means of ensuring the healthy development of our children.
Most importantly, students support SEL too. The National Urban League’s “Unmasked Stories of Inequity: Emerging Voices From the Pandemic” film series highlights 13 youth who share the stories of their challenges over the past several years and their vision for the future of learning and youth development. Our youth have talked publicly about the help they need managing their emotions, and how sites of learning and development can support them. They are clear about the need for a better support system that aligns with social and emotional learning practices to guide them as they grow and learn. It’s time we listen to our nation’s youth and realize their vision of learning environments in which they can grow and thrive. A robust body of evidence on the science of human learning and development can point the way.
Ultimately, young people are the experts of their own experiences. They have lived through the shutdown caused by the pandemic and have reemerged back to school, where basic values of diversity, inclusion, and being safe in schools are still under attack. America’s students have been creative, resilient, and flexible in the face of such adversity and strife. Yet they continue to struggle.
Families, teachers, and students agree that SEL is crucial. We also know how important it is that SEL be implemented in ways that do not activate implicit racial or cultural biases or perpetuate discrimination against people with disabilities. Perceptions of “acceptable” behavior or social and emotional competence can be laced with bias. There are prerequisites to supporting the social and emotional learning of our diverse student population—anti-bias training; ensuring policies and practices do not discriminate against historically underserved and marginalized students, such as students of color and students with disabilities; and including fair representation of students’ histories in curricula.
As a group of leaders at the helm of education research, policy, advocacy, and youth development organizations, we urge the public and our leaders to look to successful examples of SEL in action and develop their own policies and practices that best serve their students on every level. Our education and youth development spaces must adapt to the very real challenges that our youth face as they continue to adjust to a world that has changed so drastically over the past two years. SEL ensures that our youth are provided safe, equitable opportunities to learn and develop and confront the challenges that they are facing. SEL is central to the mastery of skills necessary to maximize student learning and maximize the resilience and creativity that youth possess.
We encourage parents, caregivers, educators, and school-connected individuals to enact instruction and policies that are consistent with the science of learning and development and support students’ social, emotional, and academic development. Our young people need the skills taught through SEL—empathy, collaboration, conflict resolution, self-regulation—to be successful in today’s dynamic economy while developing responsibility for themselves and their community. We must listen to youth and invest in policies and practices that support the development of the whole child.