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Podcast Transcript: A Century of SEL (S1E2)

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Mullen: Welcome to the EXPLORING THE CORE PODCAST, where we delve into the elements that make up our education system and learn more about how that system can improve for the benefit of all students in schools today.

I'm Greg Mullen, and in this episode... I talk about the history behind SEL and its importance in schools today.

I'll also be talking to Clark McKown out of Illinois, a leader in Social and Emotional Learning, about his thoughts on where things are, where we’re headed, and the challenges we face moving forward in the world of SEL assessments in schools.

Thank you for listening, I hope you enjoy the show.


Just what makes social-emotional learning so important in today’s schools - haven’t we always addressed the social and emotional development in students? It’s this kind of question I get from parents and educators more often than I’d like to admit, but the answer is buried in the historical development of cognitive and psychological theories in the last century.

Now people that know me personally - they know that I don’t typically revel in the history of dates and events - it’s hardly a hobby of mine; but I do feel it is critical that I briefly review the history behind this topic of social emotional learning in schools.

What I want to impress upon here, for you the listener, is the idea that social and emotional learning has had such a rapid development in the past century that generations have hardly been able to keep up with so many academic and societal revelations. What I want you to keep in mind as you listen to this episode, as we consider the impact of SEL today, is that communities are implementing the knowledge and theories available to them which may not always include the most recent developmental discoveries.

So let’s begin this historical briefing at the start of the 20th century - the nineteen-oughts.

During this time, the United States had only just been introduced to a number of big ideas - Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud helped lead the field of psychoanalysis, American John Dewey presented his philosophy of education, other schooling philosophies such as Montessori and Waldorf were also just getting started in Germany and Italy. So much change was happening at the time - I mean, the Civil War had ended just a generation prior, with segregation in U.S. schools upheld by a supreme court ruling in 1897. Oh! That was the year the whole Pavlov’s Dog concept of behavioral conditioning would be published for the very first time. Think about that! Not until the 1920s would psychology even begin to explore how humans biologically and psychologically learn in elementary and secondary schools. Jean Piaget wouldn’t formally publish his work until the 1930s, and Maslow wouldn’t publish his Hierarchy of Needs until the 1950s. So many new ideas about how humans learn were developed during this first half of the 20th century - ideas we now consider common knowledge.

It will take this research generations before such profound developments in psychology and child development would receive widespread acceptance and practice within communities. We would not see these developments become what we now refer to today as social and emotional learning in schools until it first evolved into the field of social psychology in the mid- to late-20th century. An example of this was in 1961 when Albert Bandura and his now-famous Bobo doll experiment helped observational learning explain personality development. Most educators know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development but he wouldn’t publish his social-cultural theories until the 1970s.

Now bear with me as give some context to this series of academic developments.

Consider the political unrest at the time. Remember, not much more than 50 years had passed since the supreme court ruled in favor of segregation in schools. Then in 1955, the supreme court would rule that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. That’s a huge shift! Now consider just ten years later, President Johnson would sign into law The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This emphasized low socioeconomic schools to be funded with the hope of bridging an existing achievement gap. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity would also launch that same year Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program. This was designed to help break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet - can you guess? - their emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. Again, that was 1965.

Now let’s quickly consider the years to follow would see Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and Daniel Golman’s book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ” not just be published but become best sellers.

Now put that in context - think about that first half of the 20th century, all the discoveries and cultural development related to psychology. Consider how those ideas impacted policy and media in the second half of the 20th century. It took nearly the entire one-hundred year span for these ideas to be integrated into our society as common knowledge.

The point I want to make sure is clear in providing this brief historical perspective is this:

With each generation, a percentage of people introduce new ideas that the following generations develop and expand. Those people that grew up in the 50s and 60s were learning and developing ideas that came from the development of concepts from their parents generation. Those that are my age, in their late 30s, are learning and developing ideas that came from concepts from our parents’ generation, and the ideas today will impact future generations. Today, in schools across the country, one of those concepts we’ve been developing across the generations, since before Johnson’s 1965 legislation is that students, is that schools need to provide healthy social and emotional environments and resources for students.

Now let’s dig in to the phrase we’re hearing today, social-emotional.

Social and Emotional Learning is a phrase coined in 1994 by the Center for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL for short. The center was formed by a group of university professors and academic leaders who were building on the giants of past concepts and knowledge. In 1997 they released their Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. They actually just released in 2015 an updated handbook which highlights how much the field has grown since the 1990s with nearly a hundred contributors covering a variety of aspects related to the field.

That phrase social and emotional learning is a giant phrase that incorporates a century of study and developmental shift in schools and classrooms today.

CASEL has defined a framework of five core SEL competencies.

You can find on their website details about each competency, but let me quickly introduce each of the five areas boiled down from what is available on their website:

One, Self-Awareness is the competency focused on RECOGNIZING one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. It’s the ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.”

Two, Self-Management is the competency for successfully REGULATING one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations — effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. It’s the ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.

Three, Social Awareness is the competency that takes the perspective of and EMPATHIZES with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. It’s the ability to understand social, and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Four, Relationship Skills is a competency that ESTABLISHES and MAINTAINS healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This is the ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflicts constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.

Five, Responsible Decision-Making is a competency that incorporates the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. This includes realistic evaluation of consequences of actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.

These competencies are the focus of policy decisions being made in states across the country.

As early as 2003, the State of Illinois’ Children’s Mental Health Act required the state to develop guidelines for incorporating social and emotional development into school learning standards and educational programs. By 2014, Illinois would eventually come to publish two sets of SEL performance standards - one for grades 1-5 and the other grades 6-12. These performance standards list in great detail the skills students can be expected to develop according to a particular range of grade-levels.

In 2012, Ohio adopted their own Early Learning and Development Standards for children from infants up through Kindergarten. In October of 2019, they approved their state's SEL standards for all K-12 classrooms.

The very next month, in November of 2019, the Iowa Department of Education released their SEL standards.

Clearly, individual states are steadily developing their own vision for a standards-based approach to Social-Emotional Learning.

I’ve spoken with teachers at conferences all across the country, including from Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa, and I’ve asked about the impact their state’s SEL initiatives have had on their classrooms. The general response ranged from not knowing anything about them, to being aware but not yet hearing any word from their principals.

What I’ve come to understand is that the state perspective is one of long-term generational changes, in which states develop and adjust standards over time. It is also my understanding that the general school perspective is looking to incorporate input from students, families, staff, who all may have a slightly different approach to handling social and emotional development.

At this point, the challenge doesn’t seem to be how much research is available - a century of research has led us to this point. It also isn’t a funding issue since federal and state grants began highlighting the need for social and emotional support systems in schools and districts, but funding is now also being detailed through legislation. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act replaced the 2002 No Child Left Behind and includes specific language that supports the implementation of social and emotional support systems in schools. So the challenge isn’t research or funding.

The challenge today seems more about how schools and districts are creating a shared language for meaningful guidance that instills the concepts behind social and emotional learning in classrooms and communities.

In fact, one particularly difficult challenge was described earlier this year in an online presentation by Susanne Denham of George Mason University. She argues that not all children will follow a "normal" age-graded developmental trajectory. She adds that students may express social-emotional competencies differently depending on students' cultural context, and that learning about cultural differences can help educators and leaders better design SEL standards, instruction, and assessments.

In fact, this was also a concern in a recent report called Student Social and Emotional Competence Assessment The Current State of the Field and a Vision for Its Future led by Clark McKown who speaks with me later in this episode. In this report, it makes clear the challenge teachers face as they sort through and clarify these SEL competencies. It also mentions the challenge in deciding to what competencies their assessments will measure to what degree because what’s important varies from community to community.

The good news here is, when you consider the historical context of how far we’ve come in the last century, and you begin to recognize the forward progress happening in schools and in communities across the country, there’s one particular idea I hope you will take away from this episode...

Developing social and emotional learning in students is not a sudden development of the past few years. The past century has seen ground-breaking cognitive theories and further develop concepts of psychotherapy never before studied; concepts of social psychology amidst national social reform movements; socio-cultural theories shifting the tide of how we approach classroom and business management; neuroscience and concepts of bio-psycho-social human development.

Let us not look to social-emotional learning as the final stage of school reform here to fix what has only been improving with each decade. Let us see it as the next viable phase in strengthening our schools and communities, guiding the impact education can have on how the children of our country will learn, how we as a country will live, how we will lead in positions of power, and how we will continue to evolve toward supporting healthy human development.

The more of us helping others learn more about this development of social and emotional learning in schools, the better chance others will further expand the reach of research and development, and continue to help others become more aware of our self, our social, and our societal awareness and development.

Thank you for listening. Please enjoy this phone interview I had with a leader in social-emotional learning assessments, Clark McKown. I hope you enjoy our chat and I thank you for listening to the program.

Interview: Clark McKown

Mullen: Today I’m speaking with Clark McKown, the founder of XSel-Labs, a company focused on SEL assessments in education. He’s a professor at the Rush University Medical Center and prior to that the executive director at the Rush Neurobehavioral Center. I’d like to first say how much I appreciate the book you published this past May called Assessing Social Emotional Learning: A Guide to Meaningful Measurement - I especially liked how you approached the issue of schools looking for that "tower of babel" solution for SEL and the more specialized, I think esoteric is the word you used in the book, nature of approaching SEL in schools… How do you address schools looking for a one-stop solution in programs or curricula?

McKown: I don’t think there is a one-stop solution, honestly, and that’s part of the challenge of the field. I do think there is some really innovative work going on to try to stitch together in a coherent way more than one solution. For example, in Wisconsin, the department of public instruction adopted social and emotional competencies that they think kids should know and be able to demonstrate at different ages - standards, in other words. The DPI is inviting SEL providers to share how their program and their targets for instruction align with the standards. They’re doing that for assessment providers, too. It’s one way in which an agency that serves lots of districts can say there is no one-stop shop but if you come here we can show, if you want to emphasize these competencies that are in the standards, here are the programs that address those competencies and here are the assessments that measure them. There are ways in which these kind of organizations that speak to and serve multiple districts are trying to help them pull together resources given that there is no one-stop shop as far as I know.

Mullen: That’s definitely the hardest part about what I’m seeing when I go speak with schools, implementing frameworks and talking about competencies. The background behind the competencies and the frameworks - all of that is so new to schools right now that, even though SEL has been around for twenty years (at least), it really feels like schools are still learning what this is, especially when they see programs and curricula being offered.

McKown: Yes, I do think that states that have adopted some form of standards have a bit of a leg up because whether you agree that they’ve adopted the right competencies or not, at least they have a common vocabulary, literally a framework, to be working from. Though most of the states that have adopted them don’t have any funding as far as I know with any regulatory teeth, they still give educators in the states a lot in terms of how they should proceed and toward what aim. A lot of those standards are based on the CASEL model and it seems to me the work in schools that if there’s one model with a set of vocabulary that is most commonly shared among educators about what SEL is, it’s really the CASEL model. Again, whether you think the CASEL model’s got it perfectly right or not, the fact that this common vocabulary, this common way of thinking about and talking about SEL, I think is a real benefit to the field.

Mullen: I agree. The framework that I developed in the book I just released, it does, it has its roots in the CASEL competencies and their domains so when schools are looking at things like social awareness and relationship building, one of the issues I’m having is the domains themselves are so closely related, it’s confusing which domain they’re observing and which skills they are addressing, and so what I’ve done is actually put the two domains and the skills into one big ball, rolled them all up, and re-divied everything up into a very specific set of skills. I’m wondering if you’ve seen people doing that recently.

McKown: I don’t know, I’ve been in conversations in my work with CASEL SEL workgroups and other groups where we’ve gotten really… it feels like talking about definitions of SEL and SEL Frameworks can send you down a rabbit-hole pretty quickly, where you’ve got folks that have their own way of looking at things and others have their way of looking at things and very quickly you get to this tower of babble thing where everybody’s speaking a different language. So I see that there are kind of competing or different models that are out there and I don’t think anybody’s got that figured out, in terms of what the perfect model is. To me, whether you’re a lumper where you have them in one big ball, or a splitter where you have a million different conceptualizations, the important thing is a common language. I will say this, though, I think one person that standards a chance at climbing to the top of the tower of babble is Stephanie Jones at Harvard. She’s got this taxonomy project where they have a publicly available website, you’ve probably played with it before, where you can kind of compare and contrast different models and works of SEL to see where the common underlying features are of those models. I think they have a piece coming out where they actually coded each of the competencies in like fifty different models and then they have, it’s almost like a social network graph, that shows the clusters of competencies that are represented in different models, and I actually think that she’s on the cusp of figuring out what are the, essentially, the four or five common competencies that run through the majority of these models, that you might think of as the foundation of SEL. So, this is a really long-winded way of saying I don’t really know what the answer is and I just know people are doing it in a whole bunch of different ways.

Mullen: I think you’re right, as long as everyone has that shared language, the efforts are going to be productive and meaningful.

McKown: You know, it seems, because we’re focused on the measurement part and I’m in school districts a lot, what I want to be able to do is help our partners link what they learn about their students from our assessment to what they plan to teach. So for us, we’ve done a lot of work to say, hey, here’s what SEL measures, here are the targets of instruction in your program, here is the relationship between those two, so you can use what you learn from the data guide the way that you use the resource so the translation work for us has been a little more granular between the construct of competencies that assessments are meant to measure and the competencies that are targets of instruction. We’ve done that, and it’s no great contribution to the field in many ways, because it’s not doing that big pictures Stephanie Jones “let’s pull this all together” stuff, but it does services those that want to do assessment because it helps them bridge the gap between the data and the action. I think that’s where the common vocabulary part becomes really important. If you’re going to measure it, and you’re going to do something with it, what’s the relationship between what you’re measuring and what you want to see nurtured in your students.

Mullen: You wrote in your most recent blog post that:

SEL is about nurturing competencies, not treating problems.

I agree with this statement completely, but you go on to compare the way we approach academic competencies with how social and emotional competencies should be taught and assessed. I’m curious what your thoughts are on how schools measuring academic growth through carrot-and-stick points-based systems may be trying to adopt SEL programs and curricula in that same way.

McKown: I think the idea of using data to inform instruction is a good thing. I tend to think SEL curricula and programs, I know there are challenges with them, but I also believe the meta-analyses when they’re implemented well and with sufficient intensity they tend to produce real and meaningful benefits to students. So, if that’s true, that the curricula and programs are not so different in many ways in their design from their math curriculum or reading curriculum but have social and emotional content instead, are beneficial. It’s true that educators are sometimes not sure where there students with regards to the development of those competencies those curricula are designed to teach. Then having good assessment data to use and address the same way that educators use academic data to inform academic instruction, I mean that’s what we’re trying to help the field do.

Mullen: Yea, I”m keeping a pretty close eye on your work with XSel-Labs, in fact, you just helped the CASEL Chair, Roger Weissberg, release a report called “Student Social and Emotional Competence Assessment: The Current State of the Field and a Vision for Its Future” - it’s a huge report. Do you think this report was written to provide insight and guidance for teachers or for superintendents?

McKown: I was the lead author on that report and one of the big questions was who is the right audience for it. I think it was more directed toward policy-makers and leaders in the field. The hope is that the vision is to more seamlessly integrate assessment into the SEL project, because now you have states adopting policy or standards and you have evidence-based programs for intervention that are designed to nurture the competencies and those standards, but what’s the role of assessment in that. So what we’ve tried to do is describe the way assessment data help how assessment might be informed by programs but also be used to support teaching and learning. I feel like an interested principal, or even teacher or superintendent, would benefit from reading it, but really our hope is that the policy framework run by states would allow, or facilitate and support, the more seamless integration of assessments in the SEL endeavour.

Mullen: I know when I talk with teachers, the big question is: how do we do this, what are the procedures, what are the to-do’s? What’s the task list of checkboxes that we need to do to make sure students are getting what the superintendents, the principals, the coaches, are all telling us we need to be collecting as far as data is concerned. So as I read through the report, I keep coming back to the use of SEL assessments and comparing it to that carrot-and-stick, teaching to the test, way of only teaching what’s going to be on a test to promote growth on those specific assessments. What are your thoughts on that challenge as we continue down this SEL path?

McKown: Well, I think that “teaching to the test” and other distortions of test data are largely the result to the stakes that are tied to the assessment results. If school funding or hiring and firing decisions based on teacher evaluation kind of stuff, it starts to hinge on the results of social and emotional competency assessments, then you’re going to start seeing people teaching to the test and just trying to move that needle regardless of whether its meaningful. I think there are real dangers to that way of using any form of SEL assessment with data. I hope that the emphasis will be more on using SEL data to support instruction so, if I’m a teacher, I want to reach my students and using a math curriculum, I want to know where my students start so I can modify my instruction to start where students are and help them grow. In the same way, I think social and emotional competency assessments are used in that way and used to help teachers see what’s working and not working so they can modify their instruction, the stakes are not as high and the possibility of teaching to the test is always there but that is the biggest danger when high stakes are associated with the results of the assessments.

Mullen: Ok, because I know that there are states like Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa just released their state standards for SEL and they all have…

McKown: Illinois has had state standards since 2014 and they don’t require anything.

Mullen: I’ve actually talked with teachers in Illinois and they haven’t really seen much pressure to even look at them.

McKown: Exactly. So in my view, the standards are a conversation piece for educators. Some might say there should be more funding and something behind them to encourage educators to be doing this more vigorously, but I see a lot of growing islands around SEL and I just don’t see that people are doing it because they have to or because there’s testing pressure, they’re doing it because they see the importance of these competencies for their students’ success, and their own success as teachers. That’s the right motive if you ask me.

Mullen: It really feels like we’re on a frontier of SEL in schools where we can make it whatever we want it to be based on the lessons from academic standards in the past.

McKown: Let’s hope.

Mullen: I have a tough question and I understand if there’s not a good answer for this, but the aspect of the different reporting systems, the self-reporting, the teacher observation, all of these different aspects of SEL assessments - I’m concerned that the teacher observation aspect and the weaknesses inherent in allowing teachers to make their own observations and all the biases that are involved in that, I’m sure. The concern I have is without the teachers understanding how the assessments are developed and the data that’s provided filling in between assessment periods with teachers that have not internalized the development of the framework and how those skills are meant to develop in their students, how they are supposed to internalize and infuse that into their classroom management approaches.

McKown: I’ll tell you, I think that’s a big question and a really important one. To me, it’s kind of related to the broader question of how equipped are educators to productive use the SEL assessment data they collect. I think there are very basic questions about whether a school or a district yet have a set of routines and processes for reviewing and reflecting on and making decision on any form of assessment data, reading, math, social-emotional, or whatever, and if they don’t it’s a pretty heavy lift for them to move from not having any tradition or culture of using assessment data. If they do, it’s more feasible to assimilate the SEL assessment data into their ongoing processes. Now the other point that you make that’s really important is that SEL is different than reading and math and educators can be reasonable expected to be content area experts in reading and math but maybe not in SEL because its relatively new so I do think that some extra support around what is it, what are we measuring, how are we measuring it, and then how is the data responsibly used to inform instruction, is in most cases needed for schools and districts to I think make the most of their assessment data.

Mullen: I agree with you one-hundred percent. I really appreciate you work with XSel-Labs, the reports you’re putting out, the literature you’re publishing, is there any place that people I speak with and people that are listening, any place they can find you and any publications or events that are happening in the future.

McKown: Well they can always go to the website XSel-Labs dot com, and if they click ‘Contact Us’ and fill out the form, I generally get the emails. So that’s an easy way to reach us; or just call us, our phone number’s on there, too. Upcoming events, stay tuned, we don’t have anything scheduled but we’re thinking about hosting some webinars on this very issue of SEL data use because I think it’s a really important piece in the field right now, is helping educators wisely consume SEL assessment data to make good and solid decisions based on both the strengths and limitations of whatever assessment they’re using. I have a lot of fun giving workshops on this topic and speaking with educators because there is a real hunger to understand how to measure and how to use those measures well. So stay tuned and I’ll let you know if we get something on the books soon.

Mullen: Fantastic. Mr. McKown, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

McKown: My pleasure!

[End Interview]

Hello listeners! If you enjoyed the show, you are encouraged to support the program by going online to - not only can you get early access to each episode, but also bonus episodes, exclusive content, gifts, discounts, and even receive a thank you shout-out personally from me in an episode. And if you haven’t already, you can order my book, Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning, available online at Amazon and Of course, you can learn more about me and my work at Again, thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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