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NPR on Social and Emotional Skills: Everybody Loves them, But We Still Can’t Define Them

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The language around building non-cognitive, non-academic skills in students—what we at Rodel call social and emotional learning—continues to be under debate, according to NPR columnist Anya Kamenetz in her recent article,  “Social and Emotional Skills: Everybody Loves them, But Still Can’t Define Them.”

Kamenetz lists almost 10 synonyms of social and emotional learning and offers insight into why researchers and educators prefer one definition to the other. The article notes the preferences go beyond semantics as each term offers a different understanding of what students need.

What’s in a name?

It is all about the approach. While there are some approaches that prioritize a student’s ability to be persistent (i.e. having grit, or growth mindset), there are concerns that these don’t take into account a child’s environment and other social factors. Others believe that terms such as social and emotional learning leave out variables like changing attitudes.

The debate on how to approach building student’s non-academic social skills is deep. Educators, nonprofits, and researchers are constantly considering how to be inclusive of students’ needs and social context, while also ensuring that the approach is not missing key elements such as teaching empathy, or addressing cultural differences.

We highly recommend checking out the article to see how the term determines the approach, and what it could mean for students.

Digging Deeper: The Shocking pervasiveness of ACEs and Trauma among Delaware Students

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Digging Deeper
“Digging Deeper” is a recurring feature at the Rodel blog where we take some data on Delaware public schools—and put it under the microscope. In the spirit of our Public Education at a Glance, we’ll present a straightforward look at the numbers, and search for some deeper meaning.


Delaware kids are experiencing trauma at alarming rates.

Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are alarmingly prevalent among Delaware’s children. One out of five kids in Delaware have experienced two or more ACEs.

However, it’s not just low-income kids or kids of color that are afflicted. Trauma and ACEs impact all children, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or ability.

Trauma doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse doors, either. Educators grapple with the effects of trauma in the classroom, and ACEs can have a negative effect on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children. Trauma can have a significant impact on school performance, including school engagement and academic achievement.

The Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health created this brief on ACEs among Delaware kids. Below is a deeper look at what it says and what it means for Delaware kids.

A Look Across Delaware and the U.S.

The highest rate of ACEs is in Sussex County, with 26 percent of children experiencing two or more ACEs.



ACE is a term given to describe all types of abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences that happen to individuals under the age of 18 years old. ACEs surveys measure experiences such as living in poverty, divorce and separation, neighborhood violence, parent serving time in jail, racial discrimination, and domestic abuse. ACEs are often reported by adults, who are asked to recall their own childhood experiences. Researchers then cross-examine those results with any existing chronic conditions and economic outcomes of those being surveyed.


ACEs have the power to alter the course of childhood development and lifetime outcomes. Trauma and toxic stress can impact healthy brain development, leading to chronic issues, such as social, emotional, and cognitive impairment. Kids with ACEs are more likely to have chronic health problems and to have parents with poor health, according to the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health brief on ACEs.


In Wilmington, more than one third (34 percent) of children report experiencing extreme economic hardship. That is nearly eight percentage points above the national average of 26 percent. More than 4,600 children living in the city of Wilmington reported having two or more ACEs.

We can prevent ACEs, and promote resilience.

The social and emotional development of kids sometimes falls by the wayside in schools. However, social and emotional learning (SEL), a focus on the whole child, and approaches to teaching that take into consideration the effect of a student’s environment and social factors are just some of the ways that ACEs can be prevented. As educators, parents, and service providers continue to grapple with children experiencing trauma, a stronger focus on SEL will be necessary.

  • Promote and encourage positive, protective childhood experiences. Protective childhood experiences (PCEs) counter the effects trauma by providing a buffer for toxic stress. This can include support from family and friends, a sense of belonging and acceptance, stability at home, and clear rules and expectations from parents. See more about positive childhood experiences in the report, Balancing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) with HOPE.


  • Resilience to traumatic experiences matter, and so do preventative measures to trauma. Building resilience and establishing coping mechanisms is important for students living with trauma. However, an exclusive focus on resilience can miss the role vulnerability plays. Some children are more susceptible to chronic, toxic stress and trauma, particularly those that are living in poverty and others living in the margins of society. Alongside the individualized approach that PCEs offer, a focus on changing the social factors that contribute to trauma is essential. By mitigating the factors that place kids at risk of experiencing trauma and toxic stress, such as poverty and discrimination, we can take a more preventative approach to ACEs.


  • Bring trauma-informed practices into classrooms. A trauma-informed view shifts an educators thinking from “What is wrong with this student?” to “What happened to this student?”



  • Learn more about social and emotional learning by checking out the new Social and Emotional Learning Rodel offers an overview of the importance of SEL in schools, as well as brief exploring Delawarean educators’ perspectives on SEL.

When Kids Fall Through the Cracks, it Costs Taxpayers Double

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Investing in Education
It’s not just kids, parents, and teachers who feel the impact of our public schools. If you’re a citizen of Delaware, then you are—in one way or another—affected by our state’s education system. Check back regularly as we take a closer look at how When Students Succeed, We All Win.

With a budget deficit nearing half a billion dollars, Delaware needs to invest where it counts. The school-to-prison pipeline—which gets its name from the research-supported pattern that the more times a student faces in-school and out-of-school suspensions, the more likely they are to drop out of school and become incarcerated—is harmful for students and costly for the state.


An investment in education, coupled with efforts to make school more engaging and to make discipline policies more equitable will not only save lives down the line, but thousands of dollars as well.


Implicit Bias and Zero Tolerance Policies Fuel the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended from school than their peers for minor infractions. In the 2012-13 school year, more than 18,000 students were suspended or expelled from school—that was 13 percent of the overall Delaware student population, according to Delaware Department of Education information obtained by the ACLU of Delaware. Often, these disparities are worsened by zero tolerance policies and implicit bias.


Zero tolerance policies require a one-size-fits-all approach to disciplinary infractions. They do not allow teachers and administrators to look at each situation on a case-by-case basis, according to this policy brief from Delaware Education Research and Development Center at University of Delaware.  These policies result in unfair suspensions and expulsions.


Implicit bias is the manifestation of unconscious racial prejudices and stereotypes that result in discriminatory or exclusive behavior. In the case of the school discipline, the result are far more referrals for students of color for disciplinary action, according to an issue brief from the Kirwan Institute.


Action You Can Take


  • Reach out to your school board to ask about discipline policies in your district.
  • Talk to your school leaders about programs that divert students from suspension and expulsion, such as restorative justice.
  • Parents should request for discipline data that is broken down by sub-groups to be available to the public. Using the data, we can see where discipline disparities exist and work to rectify them.
  • Students and parents should advocate for cultural competency training for educators at all levels. In order to curb the role implicit bias plays in the school-to-prison pipeline, school personnel should be able to recognize the role implicit bias plays in their interactions with all students.


As school districts and state officials tirelessly search for ways to save money, it is essential that we address the preventative measures that can be taken to keep kids out of the criminal justice system, and in school.

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