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SPARKing a Revolution

By Jack Cenovic and Akshay Mehta

In 2019, SPARKPositivity began with only 25 students. Now, due to increased funding, support, and desire for their services, they regularly reach over 1,000 students.

SPARKPositivity reflects the rapid growth of social-emotional learning across the nation over the past several years. Research findings supporting the necessity of SEL teaching stretch back over a decade, yet the topic has not always received adequate attention and funding.

As it turns out, findings from neuroscience and educational research has shown that social-emotional learning can accomplish all of these things. In fact, a 2011 study published in Child Development involving over 270,000 students uncovered that participation in social-emotional learning programs can improve a student’s academic performance by eleven percentile points. Other research compiled in a report by the Institute of Education Sciences found that SEL teaching may result in significant improvements in behavior, social and emotional skills, and attitudes about school, self, and others.

Over the course of the pandemic, funding has drastically increased for social-emotional learning. With the inclusion of federal funding available for social-emotional learning in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title IV-A, there has been much more attention towards the subject. Educators, administrators, and school board members alike have had to adapt and determine how newly available funding is best used to enhance the student learning experience. Universities have begun teaching social-emotional learning classes for educators. Take for example Creighton University, which now offers courses with titles such as “All Learning is Social Emotional Learning” and “Emotional and Social Intelligence.”

Students at a SPARKPositivity program. Photo by SPARKPositivity.

In an interview with SPARKPositivity CEO Teri Reinheimer, she told us that she founded the organization when she realized that “There were things on arts, and stem, and athletics, and cooking, but no specific organization teaching just social emotional learning.” SPARK stands for Spread Positivity And Radiate Kindness, which encapsulates the mission of the organization.

When asked about the importance of social-emotional learning, Reinheimer explained that “You can teach these kids mathematics but if they won’t respect their bosses or have compassion for each other they won’t succeed.” She also explained to us that “Sadly a lot of children don’t learn these skills at home. If they’re not learning how to cooperate, they’re not learning how to respect, they’re not learning how to be generous, then they have to learn it somewhere.” SEL teaching contributes to a more positive learning environment for student participants, which is why it is so crucial that SEL is taught.

An example of integrated STEM and SEL curriculum.

SPARKPositivity offers after-school programs, teacher training, and organizational partnerships for curriculum enhancement. Reinheimer predicts that SPARKPostivity’s Ignite our Future video series will receive hundreds of thousands of views in the future as their curriculum and influence expand.

Additionally, Brownell Talbot has recently taken steps to enhance SEL learning among the student body by implementing a program called RULER, which was developed by Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence. BT Counselor Brianna Vander Vorst explains that “SEL provides the foundation for students to know themselves well and specifically through RULER, how to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate their emotions.” By being able to regulate emotions, Students become better communicators with others and this is essential in creating a positive and collaborative environment. SEL is essentially a foundation for students to understand their identities and gain awareness as to how they react in certain situations.

BT’s RULER program begins with students. In trying to get SEL to spread, students are the ones who have the most power to raise awareness among their peers. Student leaders, specifically those on student council, are the ones who have been put in charge of starting the RULER charter at BT. By making the SEL program student-led, Vander Vorst hopes to create a better sense of community.

SEL is also beginning to gather traction state-wide as observed by Vander Vorst: “Nebraska state standards for different academic subjects are reviewed on a cycle, in the newest draft, a lot of SEL components have been added, which is indicative of the future of SEL.” Research has pointed towards the effectiveness of SEL, and policymakers are now acting to reflect this data. The beneficial effects of SEL on academic performance and behavior make it a valuable tool for all schools to continue to implement in the coming years.

As the pandemic continues to subside, the future of SEL is bright. A recent report by the revenue impact platform Markets and Markets projects that the SEL market within the education industry will grow from 2 billion USD in 2021 to 5.6 billion USD by 2026. With such rapid growth, SEL is ascending from a relatively unknown topic to a staple of American education.

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