Chicago Researchers Pushing For Expanded Social Emotional Learning

Chicago-based researchers say social emotional learning programs should be expanded in classrooms across the country. (Chicago Tonight)

Officials from a Chicago-based education collaborative looked at years of studies on social and emotional learning and found consistent, positive effects on student behavior and outcomes.

Released this month, the issue brief was drafted by Penn State University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But the two lead authors work with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning – or CASEL – a group of education advocates who research and develop SEL programming.

The Chicago-based organization was created more than 20 years ago and is responsible for first introducing the term “social emotional learning” in a 1997 book, according to Roger Weissberg, a University of Illinois at Chicago education and psychology professor who is the chief knowledge officer at CASEL.

The issue brief looked at studies conducted over two decades that found K-12 students exposed to SEL programming have seen an 11-percent gain in academic achievement over their peers. It also cites a Columbia University study from 2015 that found a return on investment of $11 on each dollar spent on SEL programs.

Their conclusion: expand effective social emotional learning programs in classrooms across the country.

In their brief, Weissberg and Linda Dusenbury, a senior research scientist at CASEL, recommend states adopt evidence-based SEL programs, provide teachers and administrators with professional development to make sure those programs are implemented correctly, and draft school, district and state level learning goals.

“For teachers to be able to do this well, I think there needs to be a systemic commitment,” Weissberg said.

Those tasks align with requirements the Illinois State Board of Education adopted more than a decade ago when the state became the first in the nation to outline specific SEL requirements.

“Illinois was the trailblazer,” Weissberg said. “That was the first state we ever worked with from 2003 to 2005 to establish social and emotional learning standards.”

Those goals include a series of benchmarks outlining what students should be able to know and feel throughout elementary and high school, from developing self-awareness and management skills early on, to using those skills and maintaining “responsible behaviors” in their school and personal lives.

On top of partnering with states, CASEL has contracted with CPS for years, providing teacher training and SEL resources in schools across the city. The group also works with more than a dozen other public school districts in cities including Atlanta, Cleveland and Sacramento.

“A lot of the best programs are done at the elementary school level, and they’re multiyear, they’re programs that make this part of the school setting,” Weissberg said. “In Chicago, the work would really be done pre-K through 12th grade and I think a lot of the work in the elementary schools, there are good models there.

According to CASEL’s website, more than 250 CPS schools currently use some form of evidence-based SEL program to help teach students how to properly manage their emotions.

Weissberg specifically noted CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson as being a key leader in the area within Chicago. The district – which has its own Office of Social and Emotional Learning – says that work has had a positive impact on student behavior, citing an increased focus on SEL training and coaching in helping cut down the number of districtwide out-of-school suspensions by two-thirds since 2012.

“The training encourages school-based staff to address the root cause of student behavior,” the district said in a press release announcing its suspension rates last fall, “and respond using an array of social and emotional techniques that include conflict resolution, relationship building, and trauma and behavioral intervention.” 

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @byMattMasterson


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