Social-Emotional Learning in secondary education can benefit wellbeing, boost results and much more, say Pete Read and Dr Leila Khouja Walker.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) could, and arguably should, be delivered in many ways. Integrating it into the school culture over time will achieve a long-lasting positive impact for students, teachers and leaders. As creators of an online SEL curriculum platform ourselves, we wanted to share some of our key approaches.

UNESCO defines SEL as: “…ways to recognise emotions and to maintain positive relationships in developing sympathy and empathy. It involves the acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes that learners need to create positive relationships, build resilience, handle challenging situations, make appropriate decisions and care for others.” (UNESCO 2022).

The impact evidence for SEL in schools and colleges has been around for decades. Despite this, it is yet to become an education mainstay. Robust independent research points to a positive correlation between investing time and resources in SEL and improved measurable academic and non-academic outcomes.

A meta-analysis of a wide body of existing research, conducted by Public Health England 2014, concluded:

‘A 10-20% boost in results is attributable to SEL.

‘School-based SEL programmes benefit pupils’ wellbeing.’

Meanwhile, employers continue to cry out for skilled employees. In October 2020, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report identified  top skills for the workplace, with nine out of ten being social-emotional skills.

 

Dedicated sessions in the curriculum

Worldwide, many schools timetable weekly/fortnightly sessions to address personal development, social, health and citizenship education. Although often a non-examined part of the curriculum, it is increasingly regarded as important, with school inspectors keen to see how schools and colleges support the transition.

Case: Tanglin Trust School in Singapore is an academically high-achieving school. The provision of a dedicated life skills curriculum alongside traditional subject lessons is perhaps no coincidence. The school has recruited ‘Lifeskills practitioners’ to embed a programme that is given a significant timetable and the necessary resources to deliver as high-quality content as with any other subject.

Cross-curricular learning

SEL delivery does not need to be sidelined with a small group of teachers or even specialists. Rather, it is core to any teaching practice, enabling students to thrive in their learning and wider lives. A growing number of schools and colleges are embedding these skills, often within their mission statement or values, as desirable ‘character traits’ for their community. This raises an expectation that teachers, in every classroom, overtly support the development of these skills alongside their subject area(s).

Explicit strategies can help to provide structure and make this easier for teachers, e.g., setting one or two SEL intentions at the start of every lesson, promoting peer-to-peer learning and so on.

Case: West Suffolk College believes that a focus on eight character strengths – ‘Resilience, curiosity, ownership, self-control, optimism, ambition, respect and confidence’ – will foster a culture in which students can become independent thinkers, confident in their choices and actions, and ready for the workplace.

Tutor time

Historically, tutor time has been the ‘mop-up’ part of the timetable; a check-in, daily or several times a week, with a group of students and a teacher responsible for their pastoral care. It is not uncommon to see students without  anything to focus on, whilst the teacher attempts to sort out one individual’s needs.

With curriculum time at a premium, schools and colleges try to use this time to support students’ pastoral needs.  This is laudable but it can also be a wasted opportunity because in many cases it could be done in a more planned and productive manner.

Case: Parkwood Academy is one example of a school making tutor time constructive. Tutors provide all students with structured online activities supporting their social-emotional development, whilst tutors are still available to provide one-to-one pastoral support.

Collapsed timetable

Collapsing the timetable in a ‘drop-down’ day or half day, is another option. This is especially useful for a school that needs to ‘kick-start’ a greater emphasis on personal development and SEL.

Case: At the international school group, Cognita, schools focus on wellbeing throughout the year. Synchronised on a dedicated ‘Be Well Day’, they all collapse the curriculum to focus on wellbeing as a ‘global family’. The day acts as an annual reminder of the emphasis Cognita places on equipping young people with social-emotional skills.

Independent learning time

Schools can offer independent learning time for social-emotional skills inside and outside of school hours. Giving students the opportunity to take a task/project and decide how they wish to go about it requires teachers to let go of their traditional role as the provider of all knowledge and the conductor of all tasks.

Supporting student agency is a key indicator of future success. The more students can think independently and work through their learning, the better prepared for higher education and/or the workplace they will be.

Case: At Sexey’s state-funded boarding school, SEL is part of the weekly ‘prep’ (homework) programme. A set period every evening means the activity is more likely to be done. The Director of Boarding says that ‘giving students leadership in this way is a real benefit.’

Coaching

When a teacher or more experienced peer helps a student to identify and work on a specific personal goal or development area, the results can be game-changing.

If the teacher sees themselves as a ‘coach’, they can carve out perhaps 5-10 minutes in a lesson to focus on an individual and check in on their personal development. Then, timetable other students across the term or even the academic year, two or three times a year. This requires good teacher time management skills but the results are worth it.

In a peer-to-peer coaching model, the teacher simply needs to give structure to how pairs of peers may agree on a focus for development, choose from a list of activities to focus on for a set amount of time and agree what success looks like. The teacher’s role here is then to monitor rather than to coach.

The future is hybrid!

During school closures in the COVID-19 lockdowns, many reported an increase in student agency, as teachers were unable to have the same level of control over how and when students learned. So, schools and colleges should not return to the ‘controlling’ model that stifles this.

Give students the opportunity to choose more often when and how they will carry out a task and, where possible, be more flexible in your timetable and provide independent spaces to complete activities. These same students can then act as role models for their peers, who, by the very nature of their adolescence, are screaming out for more independence.

Authors

  • Pete Read

    Pete co-founded Persona Education in 2019 to bring the benefits of personality insights to young people, with a mission of boosting their wellbeing, employability and success. Before that, he built several consulting and software companies, one of which was rated best-in-class on diversity, gender equality and LGBTQ+ equality by Vault.com.
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  • Dr Leila Khouja Walker

    Leila is an SEL expert and senior lecturer in education and childhood. As the co-founder of Persona Education, she is on a mission to boost students' personal development and wellbeing. She has a wide experience of R&D in technology for social benefit, and in teaching and educational research.
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