Students do not feel college-ready and SEL can help

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Students need to be as prepared socially and emotionally as they are academically, yet high schools are only providing the latter.

Photo: Bigstock

High schools need to include social and emotional skills (SEL), which are becoming more critical than ever, to prepare students adequately for higher education and life. These abilities go beyond the 21-century skills, and they also help students navigate mistrust, division, and trauma successfully.

Still, according to a study by Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 77% of high school students believe that, although they receive an excellent academic education, they are not ready for college.

They feel it is necessary to include SEL in their courses, so they can be as prepared academically as they are socially and emotionally. Despite this, schools in the United States are not doing enough to help them develop these skills.

In the study, the respondents answered that participating in sports, a choir, drama club, or a band, and talking with a school counselor, have been ways in which they have learned about themselves and socialize with others outside the classroom. Only 20% admitted taking a formal SEL course, which indicates the urgency of changing schools curriculum to start offering these skills in class.

Teaching SEL in the classroom

CASEL also developed a small guide with examples of how to integrate social and emotional skills into the classes through humanities courses such as literature, language and arts. The guide offers examples of how to use a vocabulary that includes feelings, activities where these words are identified and used, or create small group discussions about how and why emotions can influence behavior. These small changes can have a significant impact on SEL skills.

Also, teachers can use literature that includes different cultures or historical characters that resisted stereotypes or worked to promote justice and equality for all individuals, to make students think about the effects of stereotypes and inclusion. Educators can ask students to identify similarities between characters’ feelings, their strengths, weaknesses, and their lives and write essays about these feelings. If students felt they went through something similar as one character in the book, students can form groups and discuss how they handled the situation or what they would have done differently.

Another approach is teaching effective communication during presentations or debates. These are critical moments because educators can teach students to identify how others feel by making them recognize facial gestures or body language in their peers.

These type of activities, coupled with frequent discussions or projects that promote reflection on themselves and others, will help students learn self-knowledge and self-management, social awareness, skills to relate to others and make decisions responsibly.

How to integrate SEL in schools

The first step for schools to successfully integrate SEL in the curriculum is to create a clear vision of what it hopes to achieve by teaching SEL in the classrooms. Along with a clear path, schools must ensure that young people are part of the decision-making process, especially when it comes to the evaluation and application of SEL. This will help to take into account their perspective on the skills dynamics and the challenges they face.

For schools to achieve real integration in the process, they must support students by providing a safe space where they can share their experiences and discuss the decision process and how it will affect their social and emotional development.

The next step is to bring alumni, teachers, and administrators together to find out how to integrate social and emotional learning and how it will help them have a successful future. During this stage, schools must also diversify leadership and their opportunities to be more inclusive since, in many cases, only high-level academic, athletic, or leadership students are included in the decision-making process, not those that tend to be the most vulnerable.

Likewise, teachers and administrators must be trained to ensure that the implementation of SEL in the classroom is successful. They should emphasize social and emotional competencies in the instructions of the course, as well as offer additional professional development and continuous learning opportunities.

Finally, SEL research agenda should be promoted, ensuring that students are included. The analysis will help to continue preparing teachers to develop the students’ social and emotional competencies. In addition, students' opinion should continue to be part of the evaluation tools since their participation will guarantee the continuous improvement of the SEL data collection and the reports.

Given the challenges that adolescents face, it must be paramount for schools to listen to them, recognize their problems and help them develop the social and emotional skills that will prepare them not only for college or the work environment but for life.