As we continue to map the presence of whole health wellness activities on K-12 campuses across the nation, it is clear that a more established movement devoted to student and faculty wellbeing has also been growing: social and emotional learning, or SEL.
During our June 2018 symposium, we learned that SEL approaches were becoming so important in K-12 education that a number of the wellness fields represented, particularly in nature education, were preparing to take up SEL topics at their annual conferences this year or have been writing about them.
It is worth noting that in SEL literature that we have reviewed, the long-term health outcomes are inferred rather than explicitly stated among SEL objectives that are centered on developing the following competencies:
(The chart is by the Consortium for Academic Social Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a primary national organization developing policy and resources for the K-12 SEL community.)
Clearly there is an urgency in SEL efforts across the nation that is designed to improve the here-and-now relationships in schools today.
The mutually supporting potential of these approaches to learning would appear to lie in their distinctive and potentially mutually reinforcing objectives:
- SEL programs are designed to improve the quality and nature of personal relationships within the school, the personal awareness that students and faculty have about themselves and everyone else in the school community. These programs improve the conditions in which learning takes place. They are neutral about the taught content.
- WHL proposes to add a thoroughgoing line of wellness studies – new content – to the K-12 curriculum, with the objectives of sending students out into the post-secondary world equipped with the knowledge and skills to maintain their own health and understand the factors that influence health and wellbeing.
A View of SEL-informed relationships augmented with Whole Health Learning
The potential here is that SEL competency objectives may well be supported by student participation in wellness activities: garden-based education, food preparation, nature learning are mostly social by nature, collaborative, hands-on and supported. Mindfulness for stress-management is increasingly understood as a tool for self-regulation and strengthening emotional health. Is there complementarity here? It will be worth looking into.
It is worth noting that the availability of wellness programs on K-12 campuses is widespread; perhaps comparable to the number of schools implementing their SEL programs. Whatever the actual number, there is a serious national wellness infrastructure in place to begin testing the compatibility of these movements.
SEL Organizing in the States
The connection was reinforced last November when I attended a meeting of the SEL leadership in New Jersey. One of the state’s top SEL leaders, Mark Biedron, who is a recent past president of the state board of education, has been aware of the WholeHealthED project since 2016 and saw the work of whole health learning as compatible with SEL. He invited us to attend this first meeting of the newly incorporated SEL4NJ.org a formal consolidation of some of the work that has been done by state agencies and non-profits around character development, anti-bullying, mental health and equity. SEL4NJ is one of 14 similar state-based SEL groups that have been organized in recent months. They are part of a burgeoning national alliance, SEL4US.org
In introductory remarks, Mr. Biedron made the case for ubiquitous deployment of SEL as a means to mitigate inequity, poverty and trauma and so serve as the “backbone of the soft skills” that surveyed employers and college leaders report are necessary for success.
WholeHealthED advisor Larry Rosen, MD of the Whole Child Center pediatric clinic in Oradell, NJ has had an ongoing interest in SEL development, which he notes: “Got me to thinking about connections between SEL and health. Can we make a case there is a connection between SEL and health benefits? Certainly mental health would be logical; what about physical health markers? A quick search (on the research) doesn’t yield much.”
One study Dr. Rosen did find from 2017 is “Social and Emotional Learning as a Public Health Approach to Education,” from The Future of Children, a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.
The authors argue that SEL can support a public health approach to education for three reasons:
- Schools are ideal sites for interventions with children.
- School-based SEL programs can improve students’ competence, enhance their academic achievement, and make them less likely to experience future behavioral and emotional problems.
- Evidence-based SEL interventions in all schools—that is, universal interventions—could substantially affect public health.
As Dr. Rosen noted: “This concept is precisely what we’re suggesting: (a WholeHealthED approach) can improve student’s competence in ‘wellbeing’ essentially, or health self-care. This is an area ripe for research.”
Health Research Moves “Outside”
In 2019 we plan to bring together research efforts in the many fields that now inform – and draw from — school-based wellness programs: nutrition, mindfulness, nature ed, cognition-supporting PE and more. The relationship with SEL belongs in that examination.
It is also worth noting that the NIH unit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NCCIH is now embarking on supporting research that will assess the impact on health from experiences outside treatment clinics: from time in nature and participating in the arts — along with physician prescriptions for fetus and vegetables, occasionally referred to as “social prescribing.” The 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS: which has tracked overall consumer use of complementary and integrative health care options since the early 2000s) found that from 2012 to 2017 the use of yoga and meditation among U.S. children (aged 4 to 17 years) in the previous 12 months significantly increased. The study did not indicate whether any of this growth was attributable to K-12 school programs. NCCIH reports on these findings here.
In the meantime, what is your experience with bringing SEL into your schools or system? And if that is happening, do you find overlaps with school wellness programs? We plan to hold a webinar in the coming months on this important subject. We would appreciate your guidance on questions you may have or think should be addressed. Drop an email to: wholehealthK12@gmail.com.
Taylor Walsh, Project Director