Whenever we publish a blog post or report in our Knowledge Center on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), our digital channels buzz with interest. Much of the insights and information we’ve gathered has centered around in- and out-of-school programs that help children build the skills they need to succeed academically and in life. Now, an organization called Learning Heroes is bringing parents into the equation.
Founded by communications and policy veteran Bibb Hubbard, Learning Heroes seeks to inform and equip parents and guardians with tools and ideas, so they can support their children’s educational and developmental success. A big part of the organization’s work to date involves connecting parents and others in the field to resources, which can be found at the nonprofit’s website: www.BeALearningHero.org.
Learning Heroes recently published a report to help schools and organizations communicate with parents about SEL. The report, Developing Life Skills in Children: A Road Map for Communicating with Parents, has a lot to say about the language of SEL, or what parents more comfortably call “life skills,” and draws on findings from Edge Research, the same firm that conducted Wallace’s 2016 research on the linguistic landscape surrounding SEL terminology. In addition to the current Learning Heroes report, Hubbard says, the organization is co-developing with the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development a communications playbook that will help translate the findings and offer additional tools for people in the field. We spoke to Hubbard about the research and the important role parents play in SEL development.
The new report focuses on research you recently conducted to help practitioners communicate with K-8 parents about the development of social, emotional, cognitive and academic skills in their children. Why is the focus on parents important?
We’re now entering a unique moment, where there is greater awareness and acceptance of the fact that learning has social, emotional, cognitive and academic dimensions. As a result, school systems and out-of-school programs are thinking in explicit, intentional ways about how to teach these skills at home, at school and in after-school settings. But if these efforts are to succeed, practitioners need to join forces with parents, who see themselves as primarily responsible for their children’s education. In particular, our hope is for practitioners to seek guidance and input from parents, as they are the experts on their own children. Further, as practitioners orient parents to instructional approaches that might be new or different from what they experienced as students, it underscores the impact these approaches will have on their children.
When the research came back what was most surprising about the way that parents viewed SEL? And can you give a couple of examples of how this influenced your report?
Parents think the development of these skills and traits are important for their child’s overall development. I was not surprised that parents do not understand some of the “edu-jargon” used to describe different skills and traits, even though they support many of the underlying concepts. I was surprised, however, to find that even words practitioners may think of as innocuous, like “curiosity” or “resilience,” can have negative connotations for parents. For example, middle school parents, in particular, worry about their children being curious about the wrong things, especially because of peer pressure. And many parents want to shield their children from the types of negative experiences that might require resilience. So how we talk about social, emotional and academic learning in ways that translate for parents became a big focus of our report.
The report speaks not just about SEL but addresses a wider range of “social, emotional, cognitive and academic” skills or traits. Why did you broaden the scope?
Research has found that the social, emotional, cognitive and academic dimensions of learning are deeply connected. Moreover, in focus groups, parents prioritized a wide range of skills across these dimensions and that was confirmed in the nationally representative survey of parents. We wanted to be true to both what the science tells us, as reflected in the range of skills incorporated into various frameworks, and to what families want for their children.
Talking about language, what did you learn about the language people use to describe SEL skills? What does this mean for communication with parents?
“Life skills” is the term parents prefer to describe the skills and traits that they identify as most important for their children to develop. They prefer this term (31%) over “social, emotional and academic development,” “character development” and “social and emotional learning,” by at least 2-to-1. Some of the reasons they give are that it’s “simple,” “all encompassing” and describes the skills people use “every day in life, schools, jobs and family.” Our advice is to use language parents understand to build bridges to more technical terms. We also found that parents respond very positively to videos that provide real-life examples of what integrating social, emotional, cognitive and academic development can look like in practice.
It seems from the research that parents, for the most part, believe SEL skills are essential but many think they should be taught at home with reinforcement from schools, which leads to a lot of concern about schools rating or assessing their children on SEL. How should schools, districts and others talk to parents about this concern?
Two important findings from our survey are that parents view home as the place where these skills should primarily be “taught” and schools as the place where they are “reinforced.” Second, while they fully expect to partner with schools, they don’t want schools to overstep their role. The line in the sand is around measurement and accountability. More than a third of parents worry about their child being labeled for life (35%) or graded (34%) on skills that they view as too subjective or personal to measure. In fact, only 16% indicate it would be helpful to get a separate grade on their child’s report card to understand their progress on these skills. Instead, parents are eager to hear from teachers about how their child is doing in the form of parent-teacher conferences, folder notes, emails and more regular communications, particularly if there’s a problem.
What does an effective partnership between teachers and parents look like? What are some pitfalls teachers and schools should try to avoid?
Because parents feel deeply responsible for their children’s well-being and success in school and in life, it’s important to respect their authority as their children’s primary advocates—after all, parents know their children best. If practitioners approach this work as a true partnership by sharing new ideas and approaches, eliciting the specific skills that matter most to parents and understanding what those skills might look like in the context of local communities and cultures, rather than trying to convince parents certain skills are more important than others through a communications campaign, they’ll get much farther.