Tran: Math, Writing, Science History & SEL — Integrating Social-Emotional Learning Into Academics Sets Students on the Road to Success

The structure of today’s workforce is evolving in favor of more collaborative and communicative environments. To prepare students to meet the demands of the modern workforce, our approach to American education must also adapt. While schools should remain true to their founding mission — to reinforce core American values like civic responsibility and independent thinking — they must also equip students with critical social-emotional academic learning (SEL) skills they will need to graduate as well-rounded future professionals. These skills teach students to understand and cope with their emotions, pursue positive goals, empathize with others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

As a former social studies and English teacher, I watched students grow, progress and struggle in moments large and small. I remember watching a high schooler routinely stick chewing gum under his desk — and while it seemed like a harmless, meaningless action at the time, it was a lightbulb moment for me: If students don’t manage their interpersonal skills in the classroom, how will they learn professional norms? Principles of SEL learning help students develop self-control and social awareness while fostering self-confidence — skills vital to a successful professional future.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a strong correlation between these skills and success in the workforce. Today’s employers demand flexibility, critical thinking and project-based collaboration. But to help all students learn these skills, a holistic approach is needed: one that focuses on academic subjects like math, writing, science and history — and, simultaneously, ensures that students develop socially and emotionally. Students who learn to listen, empathize and work together will find success throughout their futures. SEL addresses these areas with equal importance, yet the practice has been met by two opposing schools of thought.

Often, “SEL” circulates in academia as a buzzword rather than as a concrete concept. Some champions of SEL have unrealistic expectations with respect to implementation: They push for a total overhaul of our nation’s education system. Meanwhile, detractors of SEL are often dismissive and worry that students will be socially re-engineered.

Despite these misunderstandings, there is a middle ground.

To better understand how SEL implementation helps students develop holistically and prepare for their future careers, the Ronald Reagan Institute recently hosted a RISE Collaborative summit in Columbus, Ohio, titled “The Case for Social Emotional Academic Learning: Workforce Success.” This forum brought together more than 30 national and regional leaders in education. The group discussed new models and best practices, identified new partnerships and built shared understandings on how best to educate the whole child and prepare students with not only hard skills but also the soft skills needed in order to succeed.

The implementation of SEL is illustrated by The Aspen Institute’s “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope” commission, which makes three key recommendations for implementation. The first is to create learning environments that are physically and emotionally safe for young students, respect all cultures, serve people equitably and foster meaningful relationships between adults and youth. Second, the report stresses that educators should work to develop social and emotional cognitive skills in all young people. Third, opportunities must be provided throughout the school day to integrate these skills with academic content. When these recommendations are put into practice over time, students reap the benefits. They are more civically engaged in their communities, feel better-connected to their school’s culture and enjoy both academic success and career preparedness.

Some states, like Ohio, have already prioritized SEL implementation. Dr. Wendy Grove of the Ohio Department of Education discussed how the Buckeye State has had SEL standards in place for kindergarten through third grade since 2015. In 2016, the state received a grant from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning to examine the need for SEL standards throughout its primary and secondary schools.

As a result of this implementation, Ohio schools have charted enormous progress. At the collaborative, Dr. David James, superintendent of Akron Public Schools, presented statistics from the city’s I Promise School, founded by NBA star LeBron James. The I Promise School has integrated SEL programming on a wide scale by listening to the needs of students. The curriculum centers on problem-based learning and supplements this with afterschool trauma-recovery and health services, an extended school day and a 20:1 student-teacher ratio. The results speak for themselves: 90 percent of students met or exceeded their expected growth on the Northwest Evaluation Association math and reading assessments.

SEL principles also encourage agility and can more effectively supplement regular academics while fostering a healthy classroom culture. Ross Wiener, executive director of the Education & Society Program at The Aspen Institute, warned that today’s education system rewards students who memorize discrete bits of knowledge. Students must instead develop real-world problem-solving skills, and they should be equally rewarded based on principles like civic leadership and good character instead of only hard skills.

Wiener also emphasized how vital it is for students to develop strong relationships throughout their careers, especially since personal connections are responsible for more than half of today’s hirings.

It’s time the American education system merged its original civic mission with learning that supports the whole student, well beyond the classroom years. With SEL standards in place, students will graduate as well-rounded members of their communities, ready to tackle the challenges of the modern workforce. It is imperative for education leaders to understand how SEL, when properly applied within the framework of traditional classroom instruction, can help today’s graduates prepare for the modern workforce.

Janet Tran serves as the director of learning and leadership for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which is scheduled to host its third annual Reagan Institute Summit on Education in Washington, D.C., this summer.

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