Zelinko: Social-Emotional Learning Is Key to Meeting Tomorrow’s Challenges, but Many Students Miss Out. It Must Be Taught in Every Classroom

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

As immigration, cybersecurity, underemployment, artificial intelligence and the rapid transformation of our workplace are debated on the national stage, a daunting question looms: How are we going to prepare the next generation to tackle these critical challenges and incredible opportunities? Ensuring that students excel academically is part of the equation; another part is making sure they are prepared to address the issues that will face our nation.

When you unpack the skills leaders need, they clearly include knowledge of their field or subject area. But just as important, most successful leaders are self-aware, effective communicators, problem solvers, collaborative and able to persevere in the face of obstacles. For the past several years, these skills have taken on greater urgency in states, districts and schools under the umbrella of social-emotional learning (SEL). Whereas once the debate was about whether they should be taught, the question today is rather where, and how.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), students who participate in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percent gain in academic achievement. They stay in school longer, make healthier life choices and are more likely to be civically engaged.

Leadership training is a powerful instructional strategy for engaging students in authentic and experiential activities where they can both learn and apply SEL skills. Most schools already provide student leadership opportunities in co-curricular and extracurricular organizations; students serve as officers, participate in individual and team events, and design and implement community outreach projects and other related activities. All these activities develop problem-solving, team-building, communication and other SEL skills. Similar leadership opportunities are available through summer camps and community outreach programs offered by organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

A core belief of these organizations is that all members are potential leaders who can discover the essential skills needed to succeed through authentic experiences and opportunities. Unfortunately, there is little consistency across these efforts in terms of quality or depth of instruction. The result is that students have access to leadership development only if they are in the right school, club or community organization.

At the same time, states, districts and schools are identifying strategies to accelerate their efforts to embed SEL skills across programs to improve student success. Fourteen states have developed K-12 SEL learning standards (referred to in some states as benchmarks, guidelines or competencies), while 21 other states have SEL-related websites that provide guidance and resources to educators. District efforts include the Chicago school district, which has a separate SEL Office to provide resources and supports to its educators, and the New York City Student Success Network, which partners with more than 50 schools and community organizations to collect data to measure the impact of SEL competencies on student outcomes.

However, while there is a lot of energy around SEL, many schools still view academics and SEL as separate tracks, with the result that its implementation is not always well defined or consistently implemented across schools or programs. It takes a vision and a commitment to engage and bring together all stakeholders, in and out of school, to develop a clearly articulated framework for SEL implementation.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with the Lead2Feed Student Leadership Program for middle and high school students. They complete activities designed to help them learn about team building, problem-solving and planning, and they complete a service project. The free, ready-to-use curriculum is available to educators and has been used by more than 1.5 million students since 2012. Currently, more than 7,000 are members of the Lead2Feed community. The lessons empower students to head, create and implement team projects designed to meet a need in their school or community.

In one such project, students at Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High spearheaded an initiative to address mental health in their community after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. They created signs with mental health hotline information that were posted in each bathroom stall in the Miami-Dade County Public School District. Through ingenuity and persistence, these students took tangible steps toward addressing mental health issues, with more than 44,400 of these signs posted around the district.

As we prepare students to tackle the global challenges of the future, we must adopt a rigorous social and emotional learning program in the classroom. With a robust SEL curriculum, students will be prepared to lead future generations and solve our most complex problems.

Dr. Peggi Zelinko began her 35-year career in the education sector as a high school marketing education teacher and university teacher educator. She went on to direct state and national programs designed to support teachers and school leaders. She retired from the U.S. Department of Education, where she served as director of Teacher Quality and School Leadership Programs in its Office of Innovation and Improvement. Through her current consulting work, she focuses on projects to improve teaching and learning.

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