Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of an ongoing series of posts dedicated to K-12 education policy in Mississippi.
By Grace Breazeale I K-12 Policy Associate
In early 2021, the Mississippi Department of Education released its first-ever social-emotional learning (SEL) standards. The release of these standards was a positive step towards increasing attention on students’ mental health: research shows that social-emotional learning can have a host of positive effects, from improved behavior to decreased stress. Though not its primary focus, social-emotional learning has also been found to positively impact students’ test scores and attendance rates. Achieving these outcomes, however, depends on the strong and consistent implementation of a social-emotional learning program. A perceived lack of time, minimal training among teachers, and limited buy-in from districts may be hindering the impacts of social-emotional learning programs in some schools. As long as these obstacles stand in the way of full implementation, students will not experience the full benefits of social-emotional learning.
Student Mental Health Crisis
Students across the nation are facing a mental health crisis. In a 2021 CDC survey, 42% of high schoolers reported feeling “persistent sadness or hopelessness over the past year”—up from 28% in 2011. In Mississippi specifically, a 2022 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that almost 10% of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression (a number that would likely be higher if it included undiagnosed cases). These phenomena have almost certainly been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mental health is closely related to behavior, which has also become a major issue among students. A recent survey of teachers by the Mississippi Department of Education found that 33% of respondents believe their students do not follow behavior expectations. In a national survey of more than 1,000 superintendents, more than 80% reported that student behavior has worsened over the past several years. Alarmingly, this could have implications for the state’s teacher shortage: in a Mississippi First survey conducted in late 2022 (analysis forthcoming), 81.2% of teachers who plan to leave the classroom within the next year reported that this decision was affected by a lack of respect from students.
As student behavior and mental health issues have come to a head, schools across the country have employed various strategies to reduce the negative effects of these issues, including increasing the number of school counselors; providing mental health screenings for students; requiring teachers to complete suicide prevention training; and increasing the prevalence of school-based mental health programs. One strategy in particular, incorporating social-emotional learning strategies into the classroom, has emerged as one of the most common approaches in helping students develop “soft skills,” such as motivation and resilience, with the hopes of improving their mental health and behavior.
There has been some confusion in the media about what social-emotional learning actually looks like. In short, social-emotional learning can be any type of activity or lesson that develops a student’s “self-awareness, self-control, or interpersonal skills.” This encapsulates a wide swath of practices, which could range from beginning the day with a group check in, to having students write a reflection about an assignment, to creating opportunities for students to work in groups. Though not intended to be a standalone remedy for the student mental health crisis, social-emotional learning has shown promise in improving a host of student outcomes.
Potential of Social-Emotional Learning
Recognizing the benefits of improving students’ non-cognitive skills, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) began developing its first ever social-emotional standards before the pandemic. In 2021, MDE released the standards, along with strategies for implementation. MDE worked closely with CASEL, which is the nation’s leading organization on social-emotional learning research, to develop its standards and strategies. It also worked with REACH MS, a subgrantee of MDE that specializes in behavior intervention work.
The document released by MDE cites studies that provide evidence on how social-emotional learning can help students develop “goal-directed efforts, healthy social relationships, and sound judgment and decision-making”—qualities that are predictive of academic and social outcomes. It goes on to describe how social-emotional learning can reduce student anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems, in addition to improving academic performance, attendance rates, and high school graduation rates.
The fact that MDE recognized the potential benefits of social-emotional learning practices and developed standards to promote these is noteworthy, as only 27 states have published such standards for K-12 students. However, even though teachers have access to social-emotional learning standards and strategies, this does not necessarily mean they have the resources to implement them effectively.
Hurdles to Implementation
Without robust and consistent implementation, the impacts of social-emotional learning may be marginal at best. A meta-analysis cited by MDE describes how programs are most effective when they follow the SAFE approach: sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. In other words, programs should follow a step-by-step approach, use active learning, spend sufficient time on skill development, and have a clear goal. Of the programs that followed SAFE practices and had no implementation issues, the most effective programs were those that were carried out in classrooms during school hours (i.e., those that did not require additional time commitments from students).
Mississippi teachers are encouraged to use social-emotional learning practices in their classrooms, but how many teachers are doing this with fidelity? Given that the state does not require teachers to incorporate social-emotional learning into their classrooms, it is likely that implementation varies widely across districts. For instance, programs in districts such as Oxford and Pascagoula-Gautier have been celebrated, but both of these districts are relatively well-resourced compared to others across the state.
Students in higher-poverty districts could benefit as much or more from these interventions, but unfortunately, teachers in these districts may feel they have the least amount of time to incorporate social-emotional learning strategies. Higher-poverty districts tend to be lower performing, with teachers facing the most pressure from school and district leaders to improve student scores. A 2018 report from Mississippi First, for instance, found that lower-performing districts administered more tests and spent more time testing than their higher-performing counterparts. Additionally, teachers in lower-performing districts were required to spend more time on standardized test preparation. In short, teachers in these districts already have limited time to teach all of their content; such time constraints suggest that the implementation of social-emotional learning may be spotty or nonexistent.
The connection between limited class time and difficulty implementing social-emotional learning is demonstrated in an EdWeek survey, in which nearly half of teachers reported that the pressure to catch students up academically is a major hurdle to prioritizing social-emotional learning in the classroom. In addition to a perceived lack of time, some teachers may struggle with having the skills to effectively implement social-emotional learning programs: the EdWeek survey found that 37% of teachers felt they had insufficient professional development in this area.
Districts aiming to reap the full benefits of a social-emotional learning program should be aware of the time, effort, intentionality, and resources that correct implementation requires. Lackluster attempts at implementation could waste valuable time and money, with limited results to show.
Reimagining Mississippi’s Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Given that strong in-classroom implementation is key to program effectiveness, providing teachers with training in best practices within this area could be vital to ensuring results from Mississippi’s social-emotional learning program. This could also help teachers develop strategies for incorporating social-emotional learning practices into their normal class content, mitigating the issue posed by limited class time.
Training could be integrated into teacher training courses or offered through professional development opportunities. In addition, schools could provide resources and support, such as access to curricula and instructional materials, to help teachers incorporate social-emotional learning practices into their daily routines. Ideally, teachers will have the capacity to foster the social and emotional growth of their students, while also meeting academic standards. The state can look to districts that have been successful in implementing these programs for inspiration.
Ohio’s Warren City School District, for example, has a director of social-emotional learning, whose job is to coordinate the various elements of the district’s social-emotional learning plan. All teachers in the district are trained on effective ways to teach social-emotional learning. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade participate in the “Four R’s” curriculum—reading, writing, respect, and resolution—which integrates social-emotional learning into normal instruction through incorporating social and emotional skills “through the lens of literature.” The district also implements a “Inner Resilience” curriculum through which students learn to “center themselves” and “quiet their minds.”
Across the country, Nevada’s Washoe County School District, which includes the city of Reno, has developed a strategic plan that includes comprehensive professional development for teachers. Additionally, the district has worked with CASEL to develop a survey that students take annually regarding their perception of their own social and emotional competencies, as well as their views on their school climate. The resulting data not only provides information about the areas that need to be targeted by social-emotional learning, but also serves as an accountability mechanism to measure the effectiveness of interventions that have been implemented.
Potential Entry Point: Early Elementary Grades
The Mississippi Department of Education worked closely with the Office of Early Childhood to develop its K-12 social-emotional learning standards. This ensured that pre-kindergarten and K-12 standards are aligned and have similar goals, but in practice, classroom instruction focuses much less on social-emotional learning when students move past pre-K.
Considering the focus of pre-K on social-emotional learning and the fact that Mississippi already has aligned standards for the grades that follow, early elementary grades could be the easiest entry point for strengthening the implementation of social-emotional learning in Mississippi. Teachers in these grades could build on the skills that students learned in pre-K. As described in previous sections, program effectiveness would depend on teachers being trained and given the resources they need for strong implementation.
Mississippi has some of the bones in place for successful social-emotional learning implementation, as it already has standards that build on each other and are aligned to nationally recognized practices. Pushing for robust implementation of these standards, including providing teachers with the necessary resources and training, should be a top priority for school districts. A focus on students’ mental health will help us ensure that students are prepared for success in school and beyond.