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Research shows that social and emotional learning (SEL) skills not only boost students’ academic achievement, but also help them succeed in life long after they’ve left school. In other words, for our children and youth to achieve their full potential, educators should focus explicitly on promoting social and emotional competence.
Teachers are the engine that drives SEL in schools and classrooms. Their own social-emotional competence and wellbeing strongly influence their students’. Classrooms with warm teacher-child relationships promote deep learning: children who feel comfortable with their teachers and peers are more willing to grapple with challenging material and persist at difficult learning tasks. Conversely, when teachers poorly manage the social and emotional demands of teaching, students’ own social and emotional competence suffers, as well as their academic performance and on-task behavior.
Clearly, then, we need to optimize teachers’ classroom performance and their ability to promote SEL in their students by helping them build their own social-emotional competence and wellbeing. Two ways we can do so are by helping them cope with the stress that comes with their jobs, and by making sure they receive the SEL training they need before they take charge of a classroom.
Teachers are stressed out
Teachers are at risk of poor social-emotional wellbeing. Research shows that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the human service industry. In a recent Gallup Poll, 46 percent of teachers reported high daily stress. That’s on a par with nurses and just above doctors. In fact, teachers and nurses had the highest levels of reported stress among all occupational groups.
Why does teacher stress matter for SEL? High levels of chronic stress can lead to occupational burnout—characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a low sense of accomplishment in one’s work. Teacher stress has also been linked to decreased job satisfaction, inadequate instructional practices, and poor student outcomes.
“Research shows that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the human service industry.”
High stress levels also harm teachers’ physical health and wellbeing. For example, when people are highly stressed, the quantity and quality of their sleep is severely compromised. A study of high school teachers found that 46 percent suffered excessive daytime sleepiness and 51 percent had poor sleep quality. Sleep disturbances, in turn, produce a cascade of negative effects, including increased risk for infectious disease and depression, and susceptibility to illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
Moreover, stress in the classroom is contagious. For example, a recent study of more than 10,000 first-grade students and their teachers found that teachers who reported higher levels of stress had more students in their classrooms with mental health problems.
My own research corroborates this. My colleague, Eva Oberle, and I examined the link between teacher burnout and student stress in a sample of Canadian fourth- and seventh-graders. We had the teachers complete a modified version of a survey commonly used to measure job burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. To assess students’ stress, we measured the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. We found that higher levels of self-reported burnout in classroom teachers could significantly predict higher morning cortisol levels in students. Although our findings were correlational, our study was the first to show that teachers’ occupational stress is linked to students’ physiological stress regulation.
In the past few years, several interventions have specifically sought to improve teachers’ social-emotional competence and stress management in school. Two of these programs are based on mindfulness: CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) and SMART-in-Education (Stress Management and Resiliency Training).
“Mindfulness” means an attentive, non-judgmental, and receptive awareness of present-moment experiences in terms of feelings, images, thoughts, sensations, and perceptions. In boosting teachers’ mindfulness, both programs aim to increase their job satisfaction, compassion and empathy for students, and efficacy in regulating emotions, while reducing stress and burnout. Initial research has shown both programs to be effective in promoting teachers’ SEL competence and wellbeing.
Recently, Patricia Jennings of the University of Virginia and Joshua Brown of Fordham University, along with several colleagues, conducted a large randomized trial involving 224 teachers in 36 urban elementary schools. The researchers found that, compared to a control group, teachers who received CARE training showed greater improvements in adaptive emotion regulation and mindfulness. They also showed greater reductions in psychological distress and time urgency (a feeling of time pressure and needing to hurry through daily tasks). In classrooms of teachers who received CARE training, levels of emotional support were sustained across the school year; in control group classrooms, emotional support fell as the year went on.
What do teacher candidates learn about SEL?
Beyond support for their own social and emotional wellbeing, teachers also need training to successfully boost their students’ SEL skills and implement SEL interventions. And they don’t just need to know how to explicitly teach social and emotional skills—they also need the knowledge, dispositions, and skills for creating a safe, caring, supportive, and responsive school and classroom community.
Are prospective teachers learning these things in their teacher training programs? It’s hard to know—though much recent research supports the idea that we need to promote teachers’ social and emotional competence, no research to date had examined the extent to which teacher preparation programs equip teacher candidates with the SEL knowledge and skills they need. So my colleagues and I conducted the first ever comprehensive scan of SEL content in preservice US teacher education programs. We analyzed 3,916 required courses in teacher preparation programs, offered by 304 US colleges of education (representing 30 percent of all US colleges that provide teacher preparation coursework).
We found that few teacher education programs covered the five SEL competencies outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—relationship skills, responsible decision making, self-management, social awareness, and self-awareness. Specifically, only 13 percent had at least one course that included information on relationship skills. For responsible decision making, self-management, social awareness, and self-awareness, the numbers were 7 percent, 6 percent, 2 percent, and 1 percent, respectively.
“Preservice teacher education shouldn’t just give teacher candidates knowledge about students’ SEL; it should also offer them tools and strategies to build their own social and emotional competence.”
Though our scan revealed the presence of SEL content in course descriptions on the colleges’ websites, we don’t know the specific content covered or the quality of that content. Still, it seems clear that teacher training programs could do much more.
Adding SEL to teacher prep
A few teacher preparation programs have begun to incorporate theory, research, and practical application of SEL into teachers’ preservice education. For example, San Jose State University’s Center for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child is committed to embedding the social-emotional dimension of teaching and learning into the university’s teacher preparation program. Preservice courses, such as math and science methods or classroom management, have been revised to include SEL content. The faculty has also developed an observation protocol with an SEL orientation that mentor teachers and university supervisors use when they observe student teaching.
And at the University of British Columbia, where I work, the Faculty of Education has explicitly integrated SEL into a post-baccalaureate 12-month teacher preparation program. One of the nine options available to our approximately 400 elementary preservice teacher education students is an SEL cohort that comprises about 36 students each year. In this program, teacher candidates follow the general outline of the regular education program but with an added emphasis on SEL. They don’t just learn about SEL research and theory in their coursework; during their student-teaching practicum, they also learn how to implement evidence-based SEL programs and SEL practices in the classroom. Teacher candidates can review a wide variety of SEL programs in our SEL program library and integrate the strategies they learn into their coursework and student teaching. All teacher candidates in the cohort are taught active learning approaches that help to create safe, caring, and participatory classroom and school environments.
Given the importance of teachers’ own social-emotional wellbeing for implementing SEL programs and practices, preservice teacher education shouldn’t just give teacher candidates knowledge about students’ SEL; it should also offer them tools and strategies to build their own social and emotional competence. Such an approach would help integrate SEL into the fabric of K–12 education. That would create a generation of students with the social and emotional competencies that they’ll need as adult citizens, employees, parents, and volunteers.
Schonert-Reichl KA (2017), Social and Emotional Learning and Teachers, Future of Children, 27.1