Committee for Children Blog

The Place of Explicit Social-Emotional Skills Instruction

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“Help! Do we really need a social-emotional learning skills curriculum in our school?”

This was the question an administrator asked me last week, after a workshop on social-emotional learning (SEL). He wasn’t the first to approach me about this. I’ve been asked about the need for explicit social-emotional instruction so many times, that I imagine many of you are wondering the same thing. That’s why I decided to blog about it.

The decisions on how to support the development of social-emotional attitudes, skills, and behaviors reside with those who make the determinations about which SEL practices to adopt. If you are one of those decision-makers, then I hope this blog will provide you with helpful considerations regarding explicit skills instruction in your school or district. These are four BIG ones!

1. Focus on specific skills.

There are many, many social-emotional skills, so target the specific skills that most meet your students’ and schools’ identified needs. Be clear about what those skills are with staff and students. Stick to them. Stay focused on those skills!

2. There is a purpose and order to explicit skills instruction, and a good program does that work for you.

Research provides reasons for teaching and supporting certain SE skills earlier than others, and a solid, evidence-based curriculum typically considers and builds the scope and sequence of lessons based on that research. For example, when people begin to understand their own and others’ emotions, the verbal and physical signs of those emotions, and what happens within the brain when one experiences strong emotions, this understanding can form skills that provide a foundation for effectively managing emotions. If empathy skills are not learned and in place, they may not see a need for emotion-management strategies and may not use them.

3. Effective explicit skills instruction provides the ‘how-to.’

Telling is not teaching. Telling a student what to do and expecting her to naturally do it again is not explicitly teaching a skill—it is assuming a skill. Triple the reinforcement for demonstrating the skill and it still won’t consistently happen in other settings if a student doesn’t know and understand. This personal story gives one example:

“I recently asked my niece if she had a plan for getting ready for the first day of high school. I knew she was stressed and overwhelmed about her orientation and all she was having to do. She said “Yes,” and then showed me her school planner that read “Get a calculator.” I asked her what else was part of her plan to get ready for school and she frustratingly said “I don’t know!”. She was told to plan and given a planner, but never taught how to plan. How could I expect her to do it on her own without showing her how and breaking it into steps, modeling and practicing it with her?”

Explicit skills instruction ensures that we do not rely on those assumptions, but that we purposefully teach students the skills to navigate life’s pathways, inside and outside the classroom.

4. We lose something if we only use one approach.

Social-emotional development can be fostered in a variety of ways to support student success. Explicitly identifying and teaching the skills is important, but if it is only being done once a week for 20 minutes, only being supported by some teachers in certain classrooms, or not emphasized with modeling, follow-up, or ongoing opportunities to practice, then skills instruction alone won’t be enough.

Knowing the what and why of explicit social-emotional skills instruction can help you make a well-thought-out decision on how to best foster students’ skill development. Take time to consider these big four approaches when making your determination about the practices you will implement to support these efforts.