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Podcast Transcript: Selecting an SEL Program (S1E4)

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 look at a study that identifies the elements and competencies of different SEL programs currently available to schools.


I'll also be talking to Jennifer Rogers out of Wisconsin, a leader in Social and Emotional Learning, about her thoughts on SEL Frameworks, competencies, and some of the challenges we are facing as we continue exploring this world of social-emotional learning in schools.

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


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In a previous episode, I spoke to the development of SEL and the competencies created by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. In this episode, I’d like to build on what we know and dive into SEL programs available to schools today.

I’ve known and spoken with a number of teachers about their thoughts on SEL programs and the consensus seems to be that whether an SEL program is in a school or not, teachers feel they are often addressing student SEL competencies - every day. Part of that consensus is the need for schools to adopt some kind of program that provides an education in things we never received in our own education when we were growing up in the 20th century. Things like self-regulation of emotions and how to address social skills and strategies for de-escalation to resolve various conflicts, in school, at home, and in the community. Actually, at my last school, they chose to adopt a particular framework for character development, but the challenge wasn’t whether the framework was any good or whether the staff recognized the value of that framework, but that the ongoing administrative and staffing transitions made it difficult for the framework’s oversight and accountability to be implemented with fidelity. This is really important because I’m finding stories like my own being told by teachers in schools across the country. It’s not the research or the frameworks - it’s what these programs are intending to teach that we have not been trained to instruct.


One thing I see as a common obstacle is the sheer expanse of numerous social skills, concepts of emotional intelligence, and philosophies embedded in the societal awareness of all the different programs that are available. It can quickly become overwhelming for a school staff to internalize a program well enough to feel confident with instruction and assessment of those SEL competencies. I speak in a prior episode to the generational development of social and emotional skills and I think that plays a role in how schools are adopting SEL programs. It feels as if selecting an SEL curriculum is as much about defining the identity of a school (and its leaders!) as it is about teaching students the specific SEL skills embedded in a particular SEL program. I’ll actually be speaking to one expert later in this episode about the benefits of building a clear foundation for seeking an SEL program.


But I think the question today is, how do I figure out which SEL program will meet the specific needs of my students and community? More importantly, how will I know which SEL competencies my students need to be developing?


I believe there is an underlying desire, for schools seeking to adopt an SEL program, to seek guidance for students in a way that shapes student identities relative to the development of the world that exists around them. For example, a school that only seeks to decrease their suspension rates will likely have an underlying desire to address the issues causing those suspensions. To do this, a school might be looking to understand the perspective of its students and provide them guidance on how to make decisions that keep them from getting suspended in the first place. It can be overwhelming to consider all of the different world-views, social identities, and ranges of capacity for self-regulating emotions… this is clearly a challenging endeavour for any school and its community. That’s why I’m making such a big point that any school seeking an SEL program will benefit from understanding exactly what skills are developing in students and what skills are being addressed in different SEL programs.


Fortunately, a study published in the November 2018 issue of Prevention Science identifies and compares the competencies in a number of SEL programs. Five authors co-authored this brilliant report titled The Core Components of Evidence-Based Social Emotional Learning Programs. They looked at several challenges to implementing manualized SEL programs in schools. They systematically identified the core components in evidence-based SEL programs for elementary schools. They used the five interrelated sets of competencies identified by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, and the result of the study presented a comparison of SEL competencies included in a sample of those evidence-based SEL programs.


This in-depth study explores 15 SEL programs, comparing them with 12 practical elements, and (the best part) does not claim any one program to be superior to the other fourteen programs; rather, each program is highlighted as addressing particular competencies, many of which are common across all of the sampled programs.


The fourteen SEL programs that met the inclusion criteria for coding in the study included:

Second Step,

Incredible Years–Incredible Teachers,

PATHS,

I Can Problem Solve,

Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving,

MindUp,

Michigan Model for Health,

4Rs,

Open Circle,

Positive Action,

Raising Healthy Children,

Resolving Conflict Creativity,

Steps to Respect,

Too Good for Violence.


Each of those 14 programs were compared using 12 elements related to CASELs five competencies - and as I list the elements here, I’d like you to consider which of these twelve elements you feel would be important to develop in your students as well as your staff:

Identifying own feelings

Interplay of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

Behavioral coping skills or relaxation

Cognitive coping or self-talk

Goal setting and planning

Mindfulness

Identifying Others’ Feelings

Perspective Taking

Valuing Diversity

Problem Solving

Assertiveness

Social Skills


Keep in mind these elements defined in this study were not randomly picked. The process for coding exactly which elements were to be included was meticulously detailed, involving a deep study of CASEL competencies and programs being considered. The elements themselves gave insight into exactly which skills this research was able to distill from each of the SEL programs. So as I dig in to this study, it’s important to recognize the amount of research that this study utilizes to ensure best practices in support of their findings.


The first big takeaway from this study is that all fourteen SEL programs share at least some of these elements. Of the fourteen SEL programs, four of the programs share eleven of the twelve elements. These four programs are: Second Step, PATHS, Social Decision Making / Social Problem Solving, and Too Good for Violence. These programs all shared elements except that of Mindfulness which, actually ended up being explicitly addressed by only two programs. This means that, if you are specifically looking to address mindfulness, there are two programs that will do just that, but, other than mindfulness, these four programs are likely to provide resources to all of the other elements in this study.


Another big takeaway is how two of the elements were included in all fourteen programs so no matter what, you are likely to see the element Identify Others’ Feelings and Social Skills as an unquestionably available competency in all the programs in this study. Think about the four programs with all of the elements, and now consider the other ten programs. There’s a likelihood that those other ten programs are missing one element or another, and that if a school is not specifically referring to a framework identifying which skills a program has or does not have, there’s a chance that a desired SEL competency won’t be intentionally developed. I come back to this takeaway in a minute, but know that this aspect of selecting an SEL program is definitely important to consider.


The last big takeaway is in the study’s discussion paragraphs where they speak to the development and adoption of a school’s SEL approach. They speak to the need for decision-making support that guides teacher decisions about the selection and ordering of SEL skills. They’re quite clear in saying that “this study was a first step toward identifying the sample of skills in SEL programs, yet more work needs to be done to figure out how to coordinate their application in the classroom.” (unquote) They go on to say that, indeed, the issue of when and how to adapt evidence-based programs is an area of current research and debate.


Now, from my own experience, I can speak to the impact of one SEL program having on a local elementary school. Having met with the lead SEL coordinator for that school in which she also happened to be a first-grade teacher, the conversation about which skills their program is addressing was quite insightful.


Prior to meeting with her, I had purchased the curriculum materials for that school’s SEL program and went through page by page listing which particular competency is being addressed. What I found was that the program is highly effective in a handful of competencies. Mindfulness and emotional intelligence were two of the largest competencies in this program. When I spoke with this teacher, she confirmed my informal analysis by describing how their early elementary students are showing huge gains in developing emotional intelligence, but they did find themselves needing to supplement the program in areas of conflict resolution and societal responsibility. When I asked this teacher whether this was known about the program prior to the district purchasing, her response was directed at how teachers were asked to weigh in but that the district officials had final say - a completely reasonable approach to curriculum decisions. This does touch on the subject of training in SEL competencies for schools, but although this teacher’s program didn’t address all SEL competencies in the CASEL framework, it was highly focused on skills this particular district was seeking. I definitely consider this a success for the school and their district as they move forward to strengthening their program, getting more teachers on board with intentional SEL programming, and even considering something more comprehensive in the future.


What I’m hoping listeners are taking away from this episode is that teachers and education leaders across the country are actively exploring social and emotional learning programs. The more teachers that are actively implementing these programs are serving to strengthen not only their students’ development - but also their own. Even as I continue to see and hear teachers shy away and sneer at these programs and efforts, the study I described early is only one that addresses the benefits of SEL programs. I feel that we are on the cutting edge of developing such fantastic opportunities for schools and communities to improve their school culture and climate by addressing what we as adults never had in schools - student and staff social and emotional development. With each new study and report, we’re finding the need to address our students as the developing humans that they are. This evolution of humanistic approaches toward education are beginning to take shape and I am excited for school and community improvements being made in each passing year, especially as we improve our ability to identify how SEL skills are developing in our students, our staff, and our communities. It’s a field of study with such important application that it’s hard to not be excited at the school reform efforts being made as more schools adopt - and adapt - social and emotional learning in their classrooms.


Now let’s shift gears a bit as I play a phone interview with a leader in social-emotional learning today, Dr. Jennifer Rogers. I hope you enjoy our chat and I thank you for listening to the program.


Interview: Jennifer Rogers


Mullen: Dr. Jennifer Rogers is the Founder of Rogers Training Solutions, LLC. She's been working with families for over 20 years alongside school districts across the country as a school counselor, researcher, administrator, coach trainer, and consultant. She's a licensed professional counselor and training as a counselor educator to create programs to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs for students.


For those of you listening, I have to apologize for jumping in partway into the first question. There was a small issue with the sound recording for the first minute, but my first question jumps in to a topic related to the first chapter of Dr. Rogers’ book: Leading for Change through Whole-School Social-Emotional Learning. The background she provides touches on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, so allow me to fade in to Dr. Rogers’ response to my first question about this ACES study and why all adults will benefit from knowing more about the background and impact of ACEs in communities and schools.


Rogers: ...so even with all these tools and strategies. So the researchers were interested to find out more about that, they went back and looked at why this was happening and discovered that many of these individuals had traumatic things happen in their background, including abuse but also divorce and mothers with mental illnesses and incarceration backgrounds and things of that nature. So then they brought the study out to a larger group in the San Diego area and that larger group found what we call now the Ten ACEs. Since then there have been numerous studies across the country and really has kind of taken over our understanding of using trauma as a lens to how trauma can impact students but also lifelong outcomes. The CDC got involved because of the link to heart disease and cancer... and even broken bones, and things of that nature. We’re seeing how trauma that happens in childhood can impact us, even our health, let alone our mental health, but our health outcomes long term. So it’s kind of the example of what we see in research that is not necessarily for educators and how it directly impacts us throughout our understanding of the environments in which the kiddos we are serving are coming to us. How we can mediate some of those impacts and look at some of the risk factors, and how we can develop strategies in order to help them through that. We can’t necessarily help them in the ways we want to or be able to but how can we, in the educational context, help them.


Mullen: Now that’s interesting because I do hear teachers say how they were hired to teach academics, not to be psychologists. I wonder how true that definition is for teachers. What are your thoughts on that distinction between educators as academic instructors versus that of what psychologists do?


Rogers: That’s what we’re dealing with right now within the schools is that it’s a real paradigm change from, as you’re saying - and there are teachers who come in with the intent of “I’m here to teach chemistry” or “I’m here to teach biology”... or calculus, I’m not here to be their therapists or psychotherapist. I teach actually a course called constructivist education at a local college here and we are looking at the background, the diversity through a diversity lens, through a trauma lens, how we look at social-emotional learning, and these are what I call baby-teachers, pre-service teachers, who are going back in to education as teachers, sometimes they had other careers, but really in viewing them with that lens at the get-go; teachers that have been around as long as I have, in my generation and older, they may have had one classroom management course or they’ve had haphazard professional development over the years, but there hasn’t been a real intensive understanding of what that looks like and that is the paradigm change that we are going to have to think about in the future. How do we gear up those that are already in the field to understand that this is the new lens we have to look out of, and how do we use that same lens and provide that for our pre-service teachers who are learning what it’s like to be a teacher now.


Mullen: That lens you’re talking about really feels like, as I’ve been reaching out to leaders in education for the past few years, the carrot-and-stick model for motivating students to achieve academic success… it sounds like this lens, this paradigm shift… do you feel that educators and administrators are keeping up, or even have the time to keep up, with the amount of research in neuroscience and human development that seem to be challenging these traditional practices?


Rogers: I think you’re hitting it on the head right there. Even looking at some of the work we’re doing with discipline practices and how certain districts are getting rid of expulsions and suspensions, but there’s not always a really intensive training on how do we replace that with something else. How are we taking some of those models for restorative discipline and restorative practices and integrating them in a way that everyone on board understands. That carrot-and-stick that you speak of earlier is so evident in many different contexts in schools. I do think it’s a process to transition from that model into what we’re understanding about the brain and the way we learn and about growth mindset, and all of those great things that are coming out of science. If we can really just look at the trauma lens, from the late 1990s when that [ACEs] study initially started, and now thirty years later, about what does that look like - and not everyone is necessarily on board with that either. So all of these practices and understanding takes generations of teachers to become regularly practiced in the building.


Mullen: So this generational mindset should be able to give people that ability to be patient with themselves as we learn more and make those changes.


Rogers: Absolutely - and that’s key, that’s one of the takeaway message I try to give to the schools I work with, and the educators that I work with, is have grace around this process because it is a new way of looking holistically at the individuals we teach, the way in which we teach them, and the context in which that all happens. Again, paradigm shifts and the lens in which we’re looking at education is changing. As we understand more about the way in which we learn, we learn that the carrot-and-stick model isn’t the way to success for us.


Mullen: I do have to point that this whole conversation so far is just rooted in your first chapter of your book - there’s a lot to dig into here and so, if people haven’t yet, it’s an amazing read with lots of critical information and I want to jump in to another idea in your book where you use a metaphor of building a house for making big changes to school culture. You get into adopting a social-emotional framework in chapter four. With this metaphor, you connect the foundation of the house to the WHY behind such a big change. The frame of the house, literally the SEL Framework, and each room of the house a particularly competency within that framework. Can you talk a little bit about what an SEL Framework is first and and how SEL Competencies relate to that framework in a school setting?


Rogers: Ya, I mean, frameworks in general, the structure as you’re mentioning - many schools and educators are familiar, they may not understand the behind-the-scenes pieces of that, but if your school is doing PBIS for example, it is the way in which we structure our thought process and the way in which we structure what we’re doing and its critical in order to lay on the foundation of the WHY. The why are we doing that. I don’t think we put enough critical importance on that. A lot of times people say, “Oh, SEL is the new thing, we have to do that.” If we know that everybody understands the WHY and we have a community understanding of what SEL is and what our role is in that SEL, our next logical step is to consider a framework. The one that I recommend a lot, and I know you have one in your book too which I’m very interested to read when it comes out, but the one that I often recommend is the G.T.O. which I reference in my book as well. Also, CASEL has a really great one as well and that’s evolving as well and I appreciate how they’ve really including adult learning in there, but the Getting To Outcomes framework is really just thinking about what kind of needs assessment are you doing, how are you establishing goals and desired outcomes, what are you considering best and promising practices, how do you assess the kids, address capacity issues, develop a plan. As you can see, the plan isn’t until many steps later. The intent of the framework, in the beginning, is to understand the context in which you are doing this - every school and district will be different, and so you don’t get to a plan until later on, and then that iterative, cyclical way of “you develop a plan, you implement, you evaluate” and you keep going back to it. That’s the process, what I really like about our framework, is that if you get stuck at some point you can go back and say “where do we need to rethink about this” and “how do we look at this a little bit differently” and it’s already designed in a way that you’re already doing that, evaluating outcomes, and coming back to it again and again saying “what can we do differently?” That’s why we sometimes timelines of three to five years or whatever that might look like, for some school that might be great, but for some schools we’re talking about a ten-year or more process.


Mullen: That can be a bit daunting, especially when you ask schools and teachers about the WHY and the philosophical outlook as to what kind of students do you want to produce, now let’s work backwards, and a lot of teachers they want to get into the “what do we do”, “how do we do it”, “where is the progress shown”, especially with the use of screeners and SEL assessments are becoming popular. What are your thoughts on these kinds of efforts, toward implementing SEL progress monitoring programs as far as screeners and assessments are concerned?


Rogers: That’s a really tough one because on the one hand, that information is crucial - screeners can be crucial, places I’ve worked in the past we’ve done screens with the elementary and middle levels and gotten really good information that helps us design programming that is important for kids. But, on the other hand, in education, we tend to become overzealous in our attempts at regulating everyone to be at a same benchmark, I guess I would say, so if we are assessing students for competency assessed, that’s very powerful information and what are we doing with it. I think that the understanding that everyone should or the majority of students at the tier one level should be at this benchmark at this age for these mathematical competencies is one thing but for social and emotional competencies that might be something [different] altogether; and I don’t think schools are adept at being able to pinpoint and assess and then remediate or give interventions for things that are all kind of in the gray area. I do love using screeners or things of that nature to guide even the tier one implementation programming and then catching those students who are high risk. Those are the two really good ways I think a screener can be helpful but you’re also dealing with a lot of information about confidentiality, what is happening with this data, and things of that nature that schools really need to invest in.


Mullen: That’s very true and it invokes what you were saying about this paradigm shift, because I feel like a lot of schools are taking a traditional model of academic progress tracking and trying to fit social and emotional human psychosocial development into this model they’ve always used for how many decades now - and it’s not working.


Rogers: No, no, I was actually just talking to a principal the other day and I said, just to think of the years of education how many math curriculums I’ve seen come and go, y’know, and that’s math! It has not changed very much over the years - we’ve changed the way in which we approach it so that’s what new curriculums are… but we’re talking about human beings, and that is so much more complex. So that’s why I really advocate for a strong, tier one, whole-school SEL - [it] will help those students, even if we don’t necessarily have an exact point at which their empathy level is… and that’s another thing, competencies (hopefully) are based on developmental norms but again that is a range in which some students are at different areas. Even just in middle school alone, what I always say is, you’re dealing with kids that are still playing with barbies and kids that are having babies. That emotional range of students that you’re working with are going to necessarily have the same - you can’t work with them in the same way across the board.


Mullen: Now, again, we’ve only really dived into chapter one and chapter four, I mean you have ten chapters with strategies that really break down what we’re just starting to talk about - and I have to ask, just a real quick question, for schools currently purchasing an SEL curriculum, and forgive me I feel like we’ve touched on this but I want to address this directly. What is one thing that schools should be considering above all else when they’re considering purchasing and implementing a curriculum for social-emotional learning?


Rogers: They should start looking at what they need because a lot of times we are sold a curriculum or we think or heard about a curriculum or we want to do a curriculum, y’know, without understanding if this is going to meet our specific needs. For example, you may have a character ed as part of your school but there are specific pieces that you need to really make your SEL holistic; or maybe you need more of a parenting lens to get everybody online. But I think that we don’t consider what we already have, what we’ve done in the past, and what we actually need. Instead, we get involved in the buying or purchasing or acquisition of, without being informed consumers. “What does my school specifically need?” rather than my schools needs an SEL curriculum and I’m going to buy X or we have money for Y.


Mullen: That is an excellent message and something I think a lot of schools are having trouble with and what you said about screeners being useful and as schools start to learn more about different types of screeners that are out and a lot of new assessment tools being developed for SEL, I think schools are going to have a lot more options as they continue to learn more about SEL and how it needs to be implemented to address this complexity of human development. Dr. Rogers, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. For people looking for more information about your work, are there any upcoming events or publications in the works that listeners can look for in the future?


Rogers: Yes, I am speaking for two different companies. One is the Bureau of Educational Research speaking for them on confusing anger and anxiety and aggression in the classroom. I’m also speaking... working on what social and emotional learning looks like for teachers in the classroom regardless if your school is implementing or not, giving them real tools and strategies to help them develop a social and emotional learning classroom.


Mullen: Wow, um, I would really like to go to that - and where can people go to find you and the amazing work you do perhaps online?


Rogers: Ya, my website is probably the easiest way to contact me at www.RogersTrainingSolutions.com and I work with individuals and schools as well as developing a coaching training for coaches that will mostly be online, so a lot of stuff in the works!


Mullen: Awesome, it is very exciting that you are doing all of this amazing work. Again, thank you for being on the program.


Rogers: Thank you so much for having me.


[End Interview]


Mullen: Hello listeners! If you enjoyed the show, you are encouraged to support the program by going online to Patreon.com/ExploringTheCore - 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 Corwin.com. Of course, you can learn more about me and my work at www.ExploringTheCore.com. Again, thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.


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