IOWA CITY, Iowa — Latinx middle school students primarily from low-income communities showed promising academic growth and gained interpersonal skills when they received social and emotional learning (SEL) lessons during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, according to one of the first research initiatives to examine these issues. In fact, spending more time on the SEL lessons was associated with lower odds of a discipline incident and improved math grades in 2020.
In addition to the SEL lessons, the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) provided SEL support to students. GEAR UP student participation predicted several key outcomes including the ability for sustaining effort, school safety, a lower rate of absences, and higher math and English grades.
ACT experts define social and emotional skills as interpersonal, self-regulatory, and task-related behaviors that are important for adaption to and successful performance in education and workplace settings.
The project involved students, educators and administrators from 14 middle schools in Texas’ Region One Education Service Center (ESC), which is in the southern section of the state and serves students who are 96 percent Latinx, 85 percent economically disadvantaged, and 38 percent English learner students.
Students took the Mosaic™ by ACT®: Social Emotional Learning assessment and data showed they reacted positively to them and perceived learning gains. They also reported improved content knowledge and confidence in applying content from the lessons inside and outside of school.
Dr. Alex Casillas, a principal research psychologist at ACT, says, “We undertook this study because we know from previous research that social and emotional skills are critical to academic success, yet there is not enough research with a Latinx student focus, particularly those from low-income communities, and/or who would be the first generation in their families to attend college. These students need additional supports because they often face significant barriers to college entry and degree attainment.”
Dr. Casillas adds that further evidence is needed to demonstrate longer-term outcomes in student behavior. Additional research is also needed to examine these lessons using a broader sample of historically underrepresented groups of students, such as Black/African American or Native American students.
Educators See SEL Value But Recognize Hurdles
Researchers also surveyed Region One educators and administrators, who reported overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward SEL and said they understand SEL’s value for improving student outcomes. However, they perceived other stakeholders, such as parents and students, to have fewer positive attitudes toward SEL.
Educators also saw obstacles to implementation, including limited support, insufficient instructional time, and limited resources. However, educators and administrators still reported relatively high intentions of implementing SEL programming to the best of their ability throughout the school year.
Educators who attended SEL webinars reported that they are in the early stages of SEL implementation and articulated additional needs that should be met in order to successfully implement schoolwide SEL. Overarching needs include: More professional development opportunities, such as opportunities that involve parents and the broader community; a detailed implementation plan; an SEL team that meets regularly; more SEL-dedicated time, especially given the challenges of the 2020–21 school year; and more—as well as dedicated—budget to make SEL resources available to students and teachers on a sustainable basis.
The two areas that emerged as having the lowest means, signifying schools are in the earliest stages of these areas, were planning and building an SEL Team. This suggests that schools wishing to advance SEL implementation could do so by designating time, space, and places in the school day in which groups could meet to focus on SEL planning.
Families See Their Role in SEL
Researchers also surveyed families who participated in an SEL webinar series within Texas’ Region One ESC and a separate sample of families outside of the region who didn’t participate in SEL.
These results show that family members who attended the SEL webinar agreed slightly more that teaching parents and families about SEL skills will lead to improved social and emotional skills in students.
Both sets of families (SEL webinar participants and non-participants) found value in SEL and think developing social and emotional skills is important for themselves and their students. Family members also said that teaching SEL was the job of families compared to schools. They also anticipated greater growth in their students’ skills following SEL programming for families in comparison to teachers. Both groups of family members generally hold positive views about addressing SEL in various ways and perceive themselves as playing a key role in this development.
Dr. Dana Murano, one of the lead researchers, says, “Together, these results provide support that engaging students, educators, and families in SEL work matters. It’s important for all students, and it’s arguably more important for Latinx students, a group of students who often need additional supports because they face significant barriers to college entry and completion.”
Norma Ortiz McCormick, the Director for the Office of College, Career and Life Readiness at Region One ESC, says, “We highly appreciate the opportunity for our students, families, and educators to be part of this research. We think it provides valuable insights and helps us advance our mission of assisting our school districts and communities to support student college readiness and success. We especially recognize the dedicated facilitators who had to transition the SEL lessons to online implementation because of the pandemic, and that allowed the study to continue.”
About ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning
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About Region One Education Service Center
The Region One Education Service Center is part of a state-wide system of 20 regional education service centers created in 1965 by the 59th Texas Legislature to assist school districts across the state. Originally slated to work with school districts as a media center, the role of the education service center has expanded to work alongside school districts to carry out the three main objectives as stipulated in the TEC §8.002: to assist school districts in improving student performance in each region of the system; enable school districts to operate more efficiently and economically; and implement initiatives assigned by the legislature or commissioner. Located in South Texas on the United States/Mexico border, Region One ESC serves 38 school districts and 10 charter school systems in the eight county areas of Brooks County, Cameron County, Hidalgo County, Jim Hogg County, Starr County, Webb County, Willacy County, and Zapata County. https://www.esc1.net/domain/3