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Social and Emotional Learning

Feedback and Communications Insights from the Field

Market researchers explore the linguistic landscape of the many terms used to describe non-academic skills, finding some familiarity with “social and emotional learning.”
December 2016
3 young mixed race boys sitting on the window sill in the hallway of an elementary school
  • Author(s)
  • Pam Loeb, Stacia Tipton, and Erin Wagner
  • Publisher(s)
  • Edge Research and The Wallace Foundation
Page Count 131 pages


How we did this

The findings were based on desktop research, interviews with 45 field leaders, an online survey of 1,600 professionals (e.g. leaders in afterschool and K-12 education as well as education policymakers), and six focus groups of parents in Boston, Dallas and Oakland, Calif.

It's important for children not only to get a firm grasp of academic knowledge, but also develop the skills they need to manage their emotions, build positive relationships, and navigate social situations. 

But what do we call this collection of non-cognitive competencies? To help understand a linguistic landscape of more than 40 terms, Wallace commissioned Edge Research, an Arlington, Va.-based market research firm. The goal of the research was to explore what the terms meant, how often they were used, and how motivating they were among key audiences for Wallace's work. This research will help us use terms that are clear and avoid terms that communicate unintended messages or associations.

Edge found that no term was a “silver bullet.” But it concluded that two terms—“social and emotional learning” and “social-emotional and academic learning”—were familiar and clear to afterschool and K-12 leaders as well as policymakers. Parents were also comfortable with the term, but they wanted the idea to be clearly explained.

Edge found that social and emotional learning (SEL) was a top priority for educators, afterschool leaders, and policymakers. However, these groups also believed that adults who work with children need more training on how to encourage the development of SEL skills. Some parents expressed concerns about how children would be evaluated and wanted to ensure that academics is always a priority.

The research also explored how motivating different rationales for social and emotional learning were. It found that educators, policymakers, and afterschool leaders are especially interested in how social and emotional learning can benefit children.

Wallace is not suggesting a “one-size-fits-all” approach to terminology or framing; rather, it believes local context should be taken into account.

Key Takeaways

  • There is no one-size-fits-all term to describe the array of non-cognitive skills children need to develop for success in life. However, the term "social and emotional learning" is familiar to many educators and policymakers. Parents are also comfortable with the term.
  • Educators, afterschool leaders and policymakers agree that helping kids develop social and emotional skills is a top priority.
  • Despite agreement that SEL should be a priority, challenges exist for the future. The field identifies training and professional development as much-needed. And parents are wary of school and afterschool overstepping their bounds.

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