Social and Emotional Learning Isn't Enough

A recent meta-analysis has shed some light on the value of social and emotional learning in schools.1 In the study, published in the journal Sociology of Education, researchers analyzed data on almost a quarter of a million 15-year-olds across 74 countries. The researchers found that poor children tend to lag behind wealthy children in social and emotional skills. However, they found that if the poorest children had the same social and emotional skills as the wealthiest, the learning gap between these groups of children would be reduced by no more than 9%.

Now, the headlines garnered from this study tended to imply that social and emotional learning in schools isn't all that valuable. In truth, however, a 9% reduction is a relatively large number. When there are quite literally dozens of variables at play, any one variable accounting for 9% is not at all insignificant. Rather that discounting it, this study actually reinforces the value of quality SEL programming in our schools. 

But SEL programs aren't enough - on that, we can all agree. Not one of us should be pleased by closing the achievement gap between poor and wealthy children by 9%. Without question, we need to do more. So, here are three implications from this research for math teachers. 

Well-Rounded Support Systems are Essential 

Mathematics teachers should recognize that while social and emotional skills are important, they are just one piece of the puzzle in addressing educational inequities. Therefore, teachers must implement comprehensive support systems that go beyond solely focusing on social or emotional development. This includes providing academic resources, mentorship, and tailored support to address the diverse needs of students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds. We've previously discussed a few of these kinds of supports that math teachers can utilize, including mentoring through Attributional Retraining, giving more effective feedback via Power Responses, and differentiating instructional practice by using the Experience First, Formalize Later model. 

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy is Crucial 

To effectively address equity in the mathematics classroom, teachers must embrace culturally responsive pedagogy. This approach involves integrating students' cultural backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives into the curriculum and instructional practices. By making mathematics relevant and meaningful to students' lives, teachers can enhance engagement and achievement, ultimately further narrowing the learning gap between different student groups. The Culturally Relevant, Cognitively Demanding Mathematical Task Framework2 is an effective tool for math teachers to use to analyze the cultural relevancy of their current tasks and enhance ones that lack cultural relevance.

Structural Inequities Must Be Addressed Systematically

Mathematics teachers need to recognize that addressing equity requires systemic change beyond the classroom. Structural inequities, such as unequal access to resources, funding, and opportunities, play a significant role in perpetuating educational disparities. Therefore, math teachers should advocate for policies and practices that promote equity at the school, district, and societal levels, while also actively working to dismantle barriers that limit the academic success of marginalized students in mathematics and beyond. To whatever degree we have influence, we should use that influence to carefully analyze gate-keeping practices in our schools for gifted and talented programs and Advanced Placement courses. In addition, we should support organizations that are working to provide resources to students, teachers, and schools in need. 

In conclusion, teaching students social and emotional skills is one of many strategies individual teachers and schools can pursue to reduce achievement gaps between our poorest and wealthiest children. But we can't stop there - we also need to work to improve our classroom environments, the relevance of our instruction, and our systems of support. Here at Math Medic Foundation, we're awarding funds to scholarships and grants that aim to do just that. 

Pete Grostic, Ph.D

Executive Director

Please join Math Medic Foundation in our mission to improve math outcomes for all. You can contact us to get involved or donate here.

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1It’s Not Their Mindset That’s Holding Children Back At School, Study Finds

2Culturally Relevant, Cognitively Demanding Mathematical Task Framework