Social–emotional learning (SEL) has gained traction in education over the last 20 years. Over the previous two years, it has held a prominent place in the headlines as a top concern of teachers, due primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, educators are now focusing on identifying high-quality, evidence-based programs for their schools.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which is a go-to for all things SEL, defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” CASEL identifies five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision making.
A meta-analysis of 213 studies found that there are significant benefits to implementing SEL programming, such as:
Increases in academic test scores by eleven percentile points
Improved classroom behavior
Improved ability to manage stress and depression
Improved attitudes toward peers
Improved positive attitude toward school
The bottom line is that implementing high-quality SEL programming leads to student success.
However, there is one major drawback for language educators—of the 36 programs that achieve CASEL’s highest recommendation (SELect), only a few are fully translated into other languages.
In Canada, French and English have equal rights and privileges—“official bilingualism” at the federal level, as guaranteed by Canada’s constitution. All provinces offer some services in both languages and some publicly funded education up to high school. The province of Québec is alone in declaring itself unilingually French. However, all English-language schools in Canada offer French language classes.
To implement high-quality SEL programming, the teacher in French-speaking classrooms often has to translate material “on the fly,” which is less than ideal.
We’ve identified the three Es to make a case for adequately translated materials:
Ensuring program fidelity and effectiveness
Equity in education
Ease of use
Ensuring Program Fidelity
To receive CASEL SELect status, SEL program providers ensure that the learning outcomes for their programs promote students’ social and emotional competence in the following categories:
Improved positive social behavior
Reduced problem behavior
Reduced emotional distress
Improved student-reported identity/agency
Improved school connectedness
Improved school climate
To this end, program designers bring in experts across various disciplines to create effective programs. Significant funds are needed to research the program’s effectiveness to meet the CASEL standards. When translating the PATHS® curriculum into French, our trained translators debated the nuances of words to ensure that the intended meaning were accurate and reflected the intentions of the program design.
A teacher translating the material in the classroom “on the fly” does not benefit from this background information. This on-the-fly translation may not truly reflect the original content and may therefore impact the learning outcomes.
Given that there are close to 80 million French speakers with a projected increase to nearly 500 million by 2025, French content is in demand. After English, French is the only language spoken officially on five continents. Just as there are varieties of the English language, so too are there different dialects of French. Ensuring that the translated content is appropriate for the target audience is crucial to ensure that the lessons are delivered as intended and communicated appropriately. Parisian French is taught in schools in Canada, but many French speakers use Quebecois. There is no difference in the writing of the language; however, the spoken language is quite different. Again, allowing teachers to translate on the fly may mean that the translation is inconsistent with learning goals.
Implementation of programs is subject to various considerations. Of significance is teacher buy-in. If teachers are not on board with the implementation or do not understand why the program is important and what it can do to improve student success, their implementation of the program suffers. They do not want to be put in the position of having to translate materials. When teachers deliver content to students, they want to see the content in their native language.
Teaching is a difficult job, and it is only made more difficult when content is not translated into the language in which it is to be delivered. This lack of access to content in their native language can impact the teacher’s efforts to deliver the content in a meaningful way. Couple this language barrier with the fact that social–emotional learning content is not always a comfortable topic for all teachers.
Few teacher education programs in Canada include training on what social–emotional learning is, how to deliver it to students, and how to develop and improve the teacher’s own social–emotional skills. There is often teacher resistance in implementing SEL programming. Getting teacher buy-in is necessary, and adding an additional barrier, such as the lack of fully translated programs, undermines successful implementation.
Equity in Education
It is arrogant to assume that all French-speaking teachers speak English well enough to provide translation during a lesson. Therefore, many teachers and students are excluded from effective, evidence-based SEL content and the significant benefits of using these programs without properly translated materials.
Learning to speak French and English is both an opportunity for and a right of all Canadians. There are various educational choices, from French language classes to French immersion classes within an English-speaking school to entire French-speaking schools. In each case, French-speaking students are not afforded the same opportunities as their English-speaking counterparts when fully translated programs are not available.
Ease of Use
Classroom teachers have to take on many roles, such as psychologist, behaviorist, nurturer, mentor, curriculum specialist, orator, artist, and conflict negotiator, to name but a few. To add to this extensive list by asking teachers to be translators is unreasonable.
French, like Spanish, translations of English are 15–20% longer than the English original text and do not contain the same sentence structure style. Teachers trying to translate on the fly are put in the precarious position of translating the content accurately while simultaneously trying to deliver a smooth, well-reasoned lesson and meet a variety of learning needs—an impossible task.
The job of a translator is equally skilled, and teachers are not translators trained in translation best practices. Not only does it require the translator to be fluent in more than one language but it also requires knowledge of the cultures involved.
In the case of technical translation, knowledge of the relevant field and access to experts within the discipline are needed. It is essential to fact-check word usage and determine the appropriate word choice to reflect the original content and meaning within the parameters of the translated languages.
The translators we worked with to translate the PATHS curriculum have years of experience in translation, cultural awareness, and education. To assume that a teacher has the skills and experience necessary to adequately translate an SEL program effectively, in real time in a classroom, is unrealistic—especially given the other teaching priorities listed above. Social–emotional learning programs are proven to provide numerous health and educational benefits to students and to improve school culture. Choosing correctly translated, evidence-based programs that address the three Es makes sense, ensures effectiveness and equity for all students, and relieves the burden on teachers by making the program easy to use.
Anna-Lisa Mackey, MEd, CEO of PATHS Program LLC, is an SEL expert with more than 20 years of experience in SEL training and professional development, student behavior, academic performance, and personal skills. She has worked with Head Start Cares and the Canadian Mental Health Association on two large-scale implementations and trained school staff and mental health professionals in Canada and the US. Ms. Mackey has also presented on social and emotional learning at numerous conferences. She is the author of the upcoming book The Social Emotional Classroom: A New Way to Nurture Students and Understand the Brain (Wiley, 2022) and the Social Emotional Us podcast host.