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Social-Emotional Learning: 
Education’s Newest Bandwagon. . . and the History of How We Got There (Part I)

Why Most Schools are not Implementing Scientifically-Sound SEL Practices—
Wasting Time and Resources

October 23, 2018
Dear Colleagues,

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  It seems that educators can’t go anywhere on their on-line news feeds (e.g., the74 , ASCD’s and others’ SmartBrief s, Learning Forwa rd, the Huffington Post , Education Dive K-12 , Education We ek, etc.) without hearing about the virtues of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). 
  Yes. . . SEL has become education’s newest bandwagon. And, districts are jumping on.
  Indeed, in the September 28, 2018 issue of Education Week’s Market Brief , Holly Yettick reported that, “Nearly 90 percent of district leaders say they have already invested in social and emotional learning products, or plan to do so over the next year.”
  This past week, Allstate’s Foundation committed $45 million to social-emotional learning initiatives over the next five years.
  And, Learning Forward —also this week—got into “the game” by stating that, “(A)s more practitioners and researchers recognize the importance of addressing students' social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools, we can't leave to chance the professional learning needed to make these efforts effective.”
  And yet, what is not being reported is that :
  • SEL’s recent popularity (and legitimacy—at least, in the media) is the result of a multi-year effort to court foundations, politicians, well-regarded educators, and other powerful national figures;
  • Many SEL programs and research studies have significant science-to-practice limitations;
  • Many districts and schools are purchasing “SEL programs and curricula” without independently and objectively evaluating (a) their research to determine if they are “ready” for field-based implementation; (b) whether they “fit” the demographics, students, and needs of their schools; and (c) whether they have a high probability of positively impacting the social, emotional, and behavioral student outcomes that they seek; and
  • The SEL movement has become incredibly profitable for some publishers and vendors—leading to “marketing campaigns” that mask the questionable quality of some programs and curricula.
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  In this two-part Blog, I would like to discuss the concerns above. 
  In a nut shell, SEL has become a non-stop “movement” (see below), and many districts and schools are “searching for SEL in all the wrong places.”
  The fundamental problem is that many educators do not understand the (political) history, its current research-to-practice status and its scientific limitations, the true outcomes of an effective SEL program, the absence of valid implementation strategies, and SEL’s potential strengths and limitations. 
  And in the rush to implement, many districts and schools are choosing incomplete, ineffective, and inconsequential (if not counterproductive) strategies that are wasting classroom time, squandering schools’ precious resources, and undermining districts’ professional development decisions.
  Districts and schools are also inappropriately attributing their social, emotional, and behavioral “successes” (often limited to declining discipline problems, rather than improving student self-management) to their “SEL programs.” 
  I say “inappropriately” because they are making causal statements that, “Our SEL program was directly responsible for our decreased office discipline referrals”. . . when the relationship is correlational at best. . . and there are other more directly relevant factors to explain whatever successes they are having.
  Finally, what is not recognized is that all of the “positive press” about SEL program “success” is a biased sample. The press is not going to report the unsuccessful SEL initiatives , because virtually no one is interested in these. My work around the country suggests that the ratio of schools implementing SEL to the schools directly successful because of SEL is very low.
  And this is not to mention the fact that most schools have been unable to sustain their SEL strategies for more than three years at a time.
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Where Did SEL Come From ? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and its Political History
  SEL is inextricably tied to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) which was formed in 1994 by a group of researchers, educators, and child advocates. With Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence work as an early building-block, CASEL functioned originally as a “research-based thought group” that ultimately wanted to impact schools and classrooms.
  Despite this goal, CASEL has no interest in large-scale training, or in deploying legions of consultants to “scale-up” its work across the country. While it has partnered with a number of state departments of education and large city school districts, it has done this to advance its agenda, and to collect the “data” to support its “movement.” Critically, most of CASEL’s efficacy data have been published in its own technical reports. They have never been independently evaluated through an objective, refereed process—like articles in most professional journals.
 And make no mistake about it, CASEL does want SEL to be “a movement.”
 To support this statement, the history of CASEL’s interactions with politicians, foundations, celebrities, and the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (which it established) is detailed.
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  Relative to foundations, they clearly have the right to fund whatever they want to fund. But the funds often come “with strings attached.” And few financially-strapped school districts are going to refuse the funds—even though the initiative may actually result in (a) a loss of staff trust and morale, (b) the establishment of faulty student/instructional systems that will take many years to repair, and (c) a generation of students who have missed more effective educational opportunities.
  Indeed, there is a growing history where some foundations’ conceptualizations of “effective educational practices” were not effective, and were retroactively proven to be misguided and counterproductive.
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  The foundation to CASEL’s SEL movement are “three” research studies that are continually cited by districts and schools nationwide as the empirical “proof” that SEL “works.” 
  All “three” studies involve meta-analyses—a statistical approach that pools the results of many other individual studies, that have studied the “same” area, variables, or approaches, into a single “effect size.”
  The cited studies are by Payton and colleagues (published by CASEL in 2008), a “study” by Durlak and colleagues (published in the journal Child Development in 2011), and a more recent study by Taylor and colleagues (also published in Child Development in 2017).
  The Blog continues with a critique of the three studies. . . which have significant flaws that result in questions about their validity and utility. A brief discussion on meta-analysis follows. . . emphasizing the characteristics of good meta-analytic research, and the science-to-practice limitations of this statistical technique.
  The critical take-away is that, just because we know that a meta-analysis has established a legitimate connection between a program, strategy, or intervention and student behavior or learning, we do not necessarily know the implementation steps that were used by each individual study included in the analysis
  Moreover, we cannot assume that all or most of the studies used (a) the same or similar implementation steps, or (b) the most effective or best implementation steps. We also do not know if the implementation steps can be realistically replicated in “the real world” as many studies are conducted under controlled “experimental” conditions.
  In order to know exactly what implementation steps to replicate with our staff and students (to maximize the program or intervention’s student outcomes), educators need to “research the research” that was included in a specific meta-analysis.

[Message Continued Below]
School Discipline, Classroom Management, & Student Self-Management: A Positive Behavioral Support Implementation Guide
Effective Multi-Tiered RTI Approaches for Academically and Behaviorally Struggling Students
Blog Message Continues Here . . . .

The Remainder of this Blog Message

  The Blog concludes by describing the characteristics of an effective social skills program—one of the most-cited and used approaches for SEL implementation. The top evidence-based social skills programs are identified.
  Then, the message describes how districts should select their SEL program or approach in the same way that they select a new reading or math curriculum. . . using a district-level committee that reviews and evaluates the research and available programs in a systematic, planned, and thoughtful way.
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  This first of two Blog Messages on the current SEL “movement” has focused on the professional, political, and social media history of SEL; a review of the quality of the research that has propelled the movement; and an analysis of meta-analysis and how to move meta-analytic SEL studies from research-to-practice.
  As with any professional decision, the strongest advice for districts and schools is to conduct your own evaluations of the research and the individual studies that are incorporated into published meta-analysis work , so that you make objective, informed, and wise decisions about how different SEL programs or approaches will work in your district and with your own staff and students .
  Right now, school-based SEL programming and implementation across the country is more due to personal testimony, tacit acceptance, and passive decision-making. We need to better understand the difference between correlation and causality , and we need to recognize that just because an article is published, it still may have critical flaws that have major implications for our students, staff, and schools.
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  I am not trying to stop the train. I am trying to improve the journey and its outcomes.
  And, while I am fully open to critique, I will stand on the facts that have been presented in this message.
  In the end, I hope that this message has been informative to you, and that it causes you to evaluate your current SEL journey (which can be re-routed). . . or to begin your journey with your science-to-practice “eyes wide open.”
  I always encourage your comments and feedback. And I always celebrate the exceptional work that you are doing in schools, agencies, and other programs across the country.
  Part II of this Blog will address the student outcomes CASEL’s perspectives on the outcomes of an effective SEL program, the absence of valid implementation strategies, and SEL’s potential strengths and limitations. 
  What do you think?


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Project ACHIEVE Press Publications
See the Project ACHIEVE Books Below


A Multi-Tiered Service and Support Implementation Guidebook for Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
Effective Multi-Tiered RTI Approaches for Academically and Behaviorally Struggling Students (2018)
The Stop & Think Parenting Book and DVD: A Guide to Children’s Good Behavior
Teaching Students Classroom and School Routines: From Preschool to High School (Compatible with the Stop & Think Social Skills Program) (2018)
Changing Student Behavior through an Educative Time-Out Process: Step-by-Step Implementation (2018)
Developing School Discipline Codes that Work: Increasing Student Responsibility while Decreasing Disproportionate Discipline Referrals (2018)
Teasing, Taunting, Bullying, Harassment, Hazing, and Physical Aggression: Keeping Your School, Common Areas, and Students Safe
Evaluating School-wide Discipline & Positive Behavioral Support Systems: Three Years of Sequenced Implementation Activities (2018)
Shared Leadership through School-level Committees: Step-by-Step Implementation (2018)
Conducting Quarterly Student Achievement Review/MTSS Progress Monitoring Meetings (2018)
The Get-Go Process: Transferring Student Information and Outcomes from Year-to-Year (2018)
The School Safety Audit and Emergency/Crisis Prevention Process (2018)
Creating Effective School Mission Statement: Characteristics and Analysis (2018)
Current Best-Sellers and NEWEST Books

Shared Leadership Through School-Level Committees: Process, Preparation, and First-Year Implementation Action Plans
Evaluating School-Wide Discipline/Positive Behavioral Support Systems: Three Years of Sequenced Implementation Activities
The School Safety Audit and Emergency/Crisis Prevention Process
Developing School Discipline Codes That Work: Increasing Student Responsibility While Decreasing Disproportionate Discipline Referrals
Analyzing School Resources: The SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) Assessment Guide
The Get-Go Process: Transferring Students’ Multi-Tiered Information and Data from One School Year to Staff and Prepare for The Next
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ABOUT Dr. Howie Knoff

  A past-president of the National Association of School Psychologists, Howard M. Knoff, Ph.D. is a national consultant, author, and presenter. He has been the Director of Project ACHIEVE, an evidence-based (through SAMHSA) nationally-recognized school improvement program since 1990- working with thousands of school districts across the country. 

He was mostly recently (for 13 years) the Director of the Arkansas Department of Education's State Personnel Development Grant- - facilitating the state-wide implementation of Project ACHIEVE's school improvement, PBIS/PBSS, and multi-tiered services approaches.

Dr. Knoff, who earned his Ph.D. at Syracuse University, works on-site- - through professional development, consultation, and technical assistance- - to help schools and districts implement Project ACHIEVE strategies effectively, correctly, and successfully. He spent 22 years as a university professor at two nationally-ranked research institutions, is a licensed psychologist, and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist.
Dr. Howard M. Knoff

49 Woodberry Road
Little Rock, AR 72212
Phone: 501-312-1484
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