Education officials in Missouri are hopeful that new state social-emotional learning standards will eventually help them combat the core challenge of teacher turnover.

Over half of the state’s new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year, and as of last December, there were more than 3,000 vacancies in the state, representing 5.4 percent of teaching positions, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Student misbehavior is consistently a top factor teachers cite when leaving their jobs, and teachers say student behavior has grown worse since schools reopened from pandemic shutdowns.

But robust and effective social-emotional learning, or SEL, which teaches students about managing their emotions, cultivating healthy relationships, and fostering empathy, could help prevent poor behavior and improve school climates, ultimately improving teacher morale, state Superintendent Margie Vandeven said.

Teachers “want to work in a very positive, constructive climate where they can come in and do their job, which is to educate our children,” Vandeven said.

Last December, the state’s board of education’s climate and culture committee charged the education department with developing standalone K-12 SEL standards that would parallel the state’s academic standards that also address expectations for instruction in math, English, and other subject areas. Over the past year, the department developed those standards with input from educators and presented them to the state board and to the public for comment. The public comment period ended Sept. 15, and the board could approve the finalized standards in the coming months.

The state isn’t alone in identifying SEL as a potential response to misbehavior, poor student mental health, and low teacher morale, all problems that have grown worse in recent years. Every state incorporates SEL tenets into its academic standards or guidance for districts in some way, and the momentum has grown in recent years.

Every state and school district should consider SEL as a strategy for “primary prevention” of mental health issues, said Jordan Posamentier, vice president of policy and advocacy at Committee for Children, a nonprofit that provides SEL programming to districts, including the popular Second Step curriculum.

“When it comes to youth mental health and wellness, you can think of primary prevention as sort of the physical health parallel to, ‘eat your fruit and vegetables,’” Posamentier said. “From my lens, I’m looking for primary prevention inclusive of skill-building that supports relationship skills, emotional management, goal setting, and problem-solving, that we have historically referred to as social-emotional learning.”

Researchers have found that instruction in social and emotional skills has a positive effect on students’ academics and emotional regulation, as well as skills like communication and critical thinking. But students will take time to learn the skills, and adults need to be consistent in reinforcing them.

How SEL can support student mental health

in most states, including Missouri, the SEL framework or standards are limited to pre-K or the early elementary grades, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a national group that advocates for SEL.

However, more states have recently looked to expand those standards, especially as students struggle with record-high rates of anxiety and depression. Forty-five states first adopted SEL competencies within the past decade alone, and 15 states have expanded or adopted SEL standards in the past three years, according to CASEL.

But when it comes to addressing students’ worsening mental health, policymakers have devoted more attention to increasing the number of mental health professionals in schools. In the 2021-22 school year, there were 1,127 students to every school psychologist, according to the National Association of School Psychologists, well above the association’s recommended ratio of 500 students to every psychologist.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration provided $100 million in grants to states to increase the supply of mental health school professionals through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“The solution in policy tends to be … bodies in buildings—so, we just need more social workers, counselors, psychologists to respond to the increasing need that we see,” Posamentier said. “That is a good idea, and it will fail. You cannot solve a countrywide mental health crisis through small group or one-on-one interventions.”

School mental health workers are also often tasked with intervening when students’ mental health reaches a crisis level. SEL can bolster their work by giving students the tools to regulate emotions so fewer of them reach crisis levels, Posamentier said.

The misinformation challenge

But as SEL gains steam and shows promise in research, political resistance has grown.

Over the last few years, conservative education advocates have argued that SEL is a method to indoctrinate children with liberal values or views.

In Arizona, on the website of the state education department, state Superintendent Tom Horne refers to SEL as a “trojan horse” for introducing critical race theory into schools.

In Florida, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz earlier this year said schools should stop using SEL materials from a popular curriculum provider, suggesting they conflict with a state law restricting instruction on race and racism. The state last year rejected a number of math textbooks, citing references in them to SEL.

However, both states still have programs that teach the same skills SEL emphasizes.

For example, in Arizona, the education department, under Horne’s leadership, has pointed districts to Arizona’s Character Counts, , a workshop program that teaches students to “develop moral character,” “improve decision-making qualities,” “demonstrate integrity, honesty, promise-keeping, and loyalty,” and “display compassion and a concern for the well-being of others,” among others. And Florida law requires students to learn “life skills,” including confidence building, mental and emotional health, resiliency, and responsible decision-making, before graduating.

“With all this antagonism, it’s going to [result in a] chill in the classroom because teachers are confused and want to respect the law, and you prevent them from doing this well,” Posamentier said. “But you cannot effectively ban it because it is integral to going to school, to teaching and learning.”

Misinformation has been a challenge for the Missouri board as it has crafted the SEL standards, Vandeven said. She is hopeful, however, that publishing the standards and being transparent about what’s in them will help combat some of it.

“Our group was very clear that we needed to publish not only the standards themselves but a very clear glossary and then indicators of success,” she said. “If you take a look at the glossary, that helps to eliminate some of the politicization that you might see around these words.”

Ultimately, Vandeven wants the standards to provide a path forward for Missouri schools without becoming mired in political battles.

“We were very clear: Keep the politics out,” she said. “Stay focused on our kids and find a way to serve them best.”