State laws promoting social, emotional, and academic development leave room for improvement

BlogHealthy SchoolsJan 14 2019

Policymakers increasingly recognize that social and emotional development plays a critical role in students’ ability to learn, and are enacting policies to encourage the integration of social and emotional learning (SEL) into school curricula. Many state policies already provide a foundation for including SEL in schools; however, policymakers should also consider policies that incorporate a holistic vision of SEL that creates healthy learning environments for all children.

Child Trends, in partnership with the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and EMT Associates, Inc., recently completed an analysis of state statutes and regulations (enacted as of September 2017) aligned with the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model of school health.

We found that most states already have policies that support components of SEL in schools. Such policies, though, are often limited in their vision of SEL and disconnected from other critical components of healthy school environments.

Many existing state policies reflect earlier efforts to build character education, conflict resolution, and similar skills into the fabric of teaching and learning. Although character education and social emotional learning are not fully interchangeable, these policies can support SEL’s integration into schools. Together, 30 states and the District of Columbia already have statutes and regulations that encourage or require SEL or character education programs in schools. Only about half of these states (15), however, mandate the inclusion of such programs in schools.

Beyond policies that call for specific focus on SEL or character education, 37 states include elements of SEL (such as healthy relationships, interpersonal communication, or self-esteem) as part of regulations governing health education standards. Thirty-eight states also include mental and emotional health in health education standards, which typically includes helping students better understand their emotions—a key component of SEL. These standards likely do not capture the full range of competencies typically considered under an SEL framework, but serve as a foundation from which to build more comprehensive policies. Only five states (Hawaii, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Ohio) lack any statutes and regulations related to SEL. This suggests that most states already acknowledge the role of schools in students’ social and emotional development.

Our analysis also examined other state policies that influence schools’ capacity to create safe and healthy environments that promote students’ social and emotional development. Forty states (including DC) encourage or require schools to use ”multi-tiered interventions” (those that support students who have varying levels of need) or positive behavior supports that promote safer and more positive school climates. Fewer states, however, have policy provisions to promote positive social and emotional development for all students. Cultural competency trainings, for example, enable teachers to understand their own biases as well as other students’ cultural and community norms, but only 20 states encourage or require professional development on cultural competency. Only 11 states have policies regarding professional development on trauma, which helps educators better understand how traumatic experiences can undermine social, emotional, and cognitive development.

These findings suggest that efforts to build upon and expand policies to address social and emotional development in schools are neither novel nor radical. However, there are clear opportunities to strengthen policies to better capture the full range of SEL competencies, better support the whole child, and help all students learn and thrive.

Our full analysis of state laws and regulations on school health, as well as a searchable database, will be released on January 31.

Child Trends would like to acknowledge Victoria Stuart-Cassel (EMT Associates, Inc.), Jamie Chriqui (University of Illinois at Chicago), Elizabeth Piekarz-Porter (University of Illinois at Chicago), and the broader teams at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and EMT Associates, Inc. who led the analysis of state statutes and regulations for this project.