Where are all children in the whole-child movement? [Unpublished]

By Christina Cipriano and Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann


Despite the increased attention, spending, and inclusion of social and emotional learning - or SEL - across schools, districts, and standards, the state of the evidence reporting positive effects of SEL on student academic and non-cognitive outcomes is neither representative nor generalizable to the entirety of the student population.

Where are all children in the whole-child movement?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects the rights to equal treatment of students ages 3 to 21 with disabilities. This includes similar opportunities and access to public education to those of their peers without disabilities. However, we know that not all learners are treated equitably, and there remains significant inequities in social and emotional outcomes between students with disabilities and their peers. These include higher rates of anxiety, feelings of stigmatization, social isolation, depression, low self-esteem, as well as academic disengagement, such as low motivation, and rates of skipping school and dropping out. Furthermore, students with disabilities lag significantly behind their peers in both intra- and inter-personal skills, including difficulties in social relationships, recognizing and managing emotions, and awareness of strengths and needs - all skills explicitly targeted by most SEL interventions.

We also know that despite IDEA protections, evidence–based programming (including SEL) is least accessible to students who stand to benefit most. Approaches common to the implementation of SEL interventions, such as reading, writing, and discussion-based learning, can create barriers to learning for many students. Furthermore, students who have experienced bullying or peer rejection as a result of their disability may feel uncomfortable with activities that require them to interact directly with peers or express themselves in front of a group.

What remains to be determined is if and how students with disabilities are accessing and benefiting from SEL. As a field, we lack any clarity about whether and to what degree students with disabilities are even participating in SEL interventions and programs. The reality is that the experiences of students with disabilities, in all of their rich and intersectional complexity, are under-explored in the field of SEL. For example, a 2018 review of student diversity characteristics within universal SEL interventions included in the most cited meta-analysis to date found that student disability status was rarely reported, and when disability status was reported, it was most often used as a screener to exclude a sample from study. Such exclusion does not account for the upwards of 14% of students with disabilities served under IDEA and who receive their instruction most of the time in mainstream classrooms.

We find similar issues in the SEL literature regarding race and ethnicity. In the most cited review of universal SEL intervention outcomes, nearly half of the studies used the labels  “other,” “minority,” or “multiethnic.” This practice results in the overgeneralization of research results  and actively betrays within-group heterogeneity. The result is ambiguous and uninterpretable results that diminish the ability to understand who is benefiting from the SEL intervention.

This reality is in part a consequence of methodological precedence in educational research. Namely, researchers are encouraged to follow effect size requirements to detect intervention effects with adequate power and are, thus, implicitly disincentivized from disaggregating students for multigroup analyses beyond general indicators (i.e. grade, gender, race, or disability status).

It seems obvious, but it must be stated: we can't have evidence-based practice without evidence. Towards this end, we are currently conducting an updated systematic review to identify the degree to which intersectional student identities are represented in universal school-based SEL research. This work will allow us to make recommendations to the field about the creation of a standard and create the basis for a methodological precedent within SEL educational research to ensure the inclusion of a broader and more meaningful range of descriptors for all students. In concert, we have been developing a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) process by which SEL programs can interrogate their approach to anticipate and address barriers to learning and participation students with disabilities may experience as a consequence of design. By way of example, we have been conducting a systematic investigation of RULER, an evidence-based SEL intervention, to demonstrate how SEL can be improved by the integration of UDL. This case study will articulate a range of typical design barriers and potential solutions to ensure equal opportunities for students to access, fully participate in, and benefit from SEL.

It is necessary that we meet the need and increase the provision of evidence-based SEL for our students who stand to benefit most. Research findings and recommendations will be shared publicly later this year. To learn more about opportunities to join us in this work, email Chris at [email protected].

Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Follow her @drchriscip.

Gabbrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.D., is Executive Director and Chief Scientist at EdTogether and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her @g_schlichtmann.

Their research is funded by a grant from The OAK Foundation (OCAY-19-407).

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