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200 Students, Parents & Educators Spent Two Years Thinking About How to Support the Whole Child. Here Are 6 Things They Found

By Kate Stringer | January 15, 2019

Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

For Duke University sophomore Mila de Souza, including social-emotional learning in schools should be common sense.

By that, she means it should be second nature for schools to support students’ mental health, teach children how to work well with others, and become a place where both educators and scholars can learn to value one another’s diverse experiences.

“I feel a lot of schools are focusing on just education and making sure these students are able to pass tests, but not really teaching students how to be good citizens in the world,” de Souza said.

De Souza is one of nearly 200 students, educators, parents, scientists, and policymakers who have been considering these ideas for the past two years — and shared their expertise on social-emotional learning with the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which today published its findings. Titled From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, the report includes six recommendations for how schools can support students, beyond academics.

Nearly 100 organizations have signed on to back these recommendations, including the National PTA, the National Education Association, and the National Governors Association. The Aspen Institute is a Washington, D.C.-based international nonprofit and think tank.

“I haven’t in my life been part of a community that has taken on something that I think is so important but does it in such a collaborative, forward-thinking, and rigorous manner,” said Stephanie Jones, a member of the commission’s Council of Distinguished Scientists and the Gerald S. Lesser professor of child development and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The commission was formed two years ago to examine the importance of and science behind social, emotional, and academic development. Since then, its members have convened panels of researchers, students, educators, parents, partners, and funders, both in person and via online conferencing, and visited schools across the country to see social-emotional learning in action. Along the way, they’ve published reports on their findings.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a broad term that encompasses teaching students everything from self-management to how to regulate their emotions and being mindful of the feelings of their peers. The idea is that social-emotional skills will help students be better learners and better prepared for the workplace — and research shows the benefits. Schools that teach SEL see improved academic performance and graduation rates, and students obtain better earnings and health outcomes after graduation and into adulthood.

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“The bottom line is, students are emotional creatures, and so are teachers,” said Chris Poulos, a teacher-leader in Redding, Connecticut, and member of the commission’s Council of Distinguished Educators. “If students can regulate their emotions more effectively, they’re going to learn more effectively. If teachers can regulate their emotions and understand them, they’re going to teach more effectively.”

For Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and co-leader of the commission’s work, this report is an opportunity to encourage a connection between research and practice.

“We know a lot now about how people learn. That is not communicated well to policymakers and practitioners,” she said. “So we have in a lot of parts of the country both policies and practices in schools that are actually at odds with how people learn.”

Here are the six recommendations from the commission:

1 Define student success to prioritize the whole child

Whether it’s at the school or policy level, student success should be defined not just by children’s academic abilities but also by how well they can demonstrate social-emotional skills such as working well with others, managing their time, and setting and achieving goals.

The commission recommends that states include these skills in their learning standards and that schools and districts create action plans around teaching them. Schools can use tools like school climate and culture surveys to gauge how well these practices are working.

Tacoma, Washington, one school district highlighted in the report, has done this work over the span of a decade by creating a whole-child initiative, with input from the school community and researchers at the University of Washington on how to make social-emotional learning a priority.

2 Make the places where students learn safe and supportive

The report recommends that schools implement restorative discipline practices and incorporate student voice to make them places where students feel heard and are safe.

Rather than filling a school with metal detectors, administrators should use social-emotional learning as a tool to increase safety by reducing aggressive behaviors and bullying. Teachers should also receive training that helps them support students across diverse backgrounds.

Having teachers instruct a cohort of students for several consecutive years, holding regular advisory meetings, and implementing mentoring programs can help students feel connected to the adults in their school.

Students can help play a more meaningful role in their learning if they have more choice in the types of academic projects they pursue or are allowed to help lead their parent-teacher conferences.

“In order for all of this to work and for students to accept social-emotional learning and succeed in schools, succeed in the workforce, and succeed in life, you just have to make the students feel wanted, and everything will follow,” said Daniel McCutchen, a Harvard University sophomore and adviser to the National Youth Commission.

3 Instruction should teach social, emotional, and cognitive skills and be embedded in school practices

Some schools may have one specific social-emotional learning program, while others may embed these lessons into academics. The commission said both methods are acceptable, but if a social-emotional learning program is going to be effective, it can’t just be limited to a few minutes a day or to a few grades. Adults across the school should be teaching these skills in class, on the playground, and during extracurriculars.

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Viewing social-emotional learning and academics as separate entities is self-defeating, the commission said.

“Academic learning is powerfully enhanced by the cultivation of social, emotional and cognitive skills, like problem solving and critical thinking, and by character habits,” the report said.

McCutchen agreed: “I think that learning and emotional management are inextricably linked. You can’t learn without your emotions.”

An example of this is EL Education, a project-based model in which students learn and develop character through semester-long projects that they choose. Students work together, provide constructive feedback on one another’s work, give presentations on their projects, and recommend changes to their local communities on issues such as river restoration and park development.

4 Adults should become experts in child development

Teacher preparation programs should encourage such topics as the science of learning, child development, how to teach students who have experienced trauma, and how to make students across diverse backgrounds feel safe in school. Policymakers can create incentives for teacher colleges to prioritize this work, the report said.

Schools and districts should consider whether applicants have a track record in implementing social-emotional development when making hiring decisions. Licensure requirements should support these kinds of skills, and teachers should have their own social-emotional needs supported in schools.

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“You have to build a coalition of people who understand social-emotional learning and are willing to be innovative and try to integrate it into what they do every day,” Poulos said.

5 The entire community can help support the whole child

Parents, students, and other community members can all participate in supporting whole-child development. Parents and students can take part in advisory boards, especially around issues like deciphering their school’s climate survey results and providing recommendations for how to improve a school’s culture.

Schools can engage partners to make sure students have access to mental health services and that their nutritional needs are met. Funds should be used to hire staff who can engage these community partners. Policymakers can invest in more wraparound services at schools.

“I think that it’s not as simple as training the teachers to do this one thing,” de Souza said. “Everyone has to be on board and understand what’s going on and help students feel comfortable in the classroom.”

6 Create a closer partnership between researchers and schools

Sometimes, education research is published that educators never see. That’s why the commission recommends that scientists and teachers work more closely together — so researchers can share best practices and educators can give feedback on how it can be implemented in school.

One way to do this is for researchers to go a step beyond their usual research article format and write an additional summary of how their research can be used in schools.

Poulos reached out to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence when he wanted to measure how social-emotional learning was being taught at his high school. The researchers there provided him with a school climate survey and offered to analyze the results for him. His school also sends teachers there for professional learning to help them learn how to support social-emotional instruction.

While researchers have often been interested in making their work more applicable to real-world questions and problems, the report provides a concrete path toward doing so, said Harvard professor and commission panelist Stephanie Jones.

“I don’t think there has been a really explicit statement that that has to be the priority,” Jones said. “That’s something that’s very clear in this document.”

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Walton Family Foundation, and Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provide financial support to the Aspen Institute and The 74.

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