From school safety to budget cuts and federal policy, there are many contentious issues in education. But educators know what students need to be successful: Schools can and must support the whole student, and teaching skills like personal responsibility, teamwork and learning from one’s mistakes enhances students’ mastery of academic content. The question is, how can this be done for each and every student?
Developing students’ social, emotional and academic skills is crucial to fostering students’ growth and enhancing their ability to create, collaborate and contribute to their communities. We know this for two reasons. First, a powerful and growing body of research demonstrates that learning is multidimensional — and the social, emotional and academic dimensions of learning are interconnected in the human brain. Second, schools and districts across the country are already setting in motion strategies that integrate social, emotional and academic development into their work, and they are seeing results.
We know that this works, and why it matters for our youth. What is needed now is a roadmap for putting it into practice. How can we make this rich learning accessible to all students? How can we ensure that adults in schools are prepared to foster social, emotional and academic growth in all students? How can we support students’ social and emotional learning in ways that enhance their academic learning? How can my school or district get started?
To begin to answer these questions, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development convened a working group of teachers, school counselors, principals, system leaders, superintendents and community partners from across the country to develop a report on what we know about effectively integrating social, emotional and academic development in schools. This group — the Council of Distinguished Educators — is one of several panels that are informing the National Commission’s official recommendations, which will be released later this year.
These educators endorse the assertion by the Commission’s Council of Distinguished Scientists that it is time to move “beyond the debate as to whether schools should attend to students’ social and emotional development, to how we can integrate social, emotional, and academic development into the mission and daily work of all schools.” With this set of consensus statements, we hope to do just that.
First, social, emotional and academic development should be for the benefit of all students, not just those who have experienced trauma or behavioral challenges. The social and emotional environments of the classroom and school have a profound impact on the ability and willingness of all students to learn. Educators should approach social, emotional and academic development with the whole learning environment in mind.
Second, it’s not just for the kids. Social, emotional and academic learning for students starts with educators building their own social and emotional skills. We know that for students to succeed, they must feel welcomed and supported in school — and the same is true for teachers.
Third, schools and districts need a clear and explicit strategic plan to properly execute this work. Districts from Virginia to Washington state are already modeling this system-wide commitment, setting clear goals, tracking those goals, and providing the necessary training and support to help educators build students’ social, emotional and academic skills. Another facet of this strong leadership is collecting and monitoring data and results, using measures of school climate and academic performance to create a culture of continuous improvement that is embraced by both staff and students.
Fourth, how we teach is just as important as what we teach. It is certainly important to provide explicit lessons on problem-solving, conflict-resolution, responsible decision-making, managing stress and other social and emotional skills. But it is just as vital to embed opportunities to develop and exercise those skills in everyday academic instruction. Students should be learning how to share ideas, discuss different perspectives, work cooperatively and engage in group projects while learning challenging subject matter. Most importantly, the classroom must model a caring, respectful and inclusive community where students and adults live these skills on a daily basis.
Finally, schools can’t do this work alone. The many organizations that work with students before and after school share the same commitment to developing curious, socially competent and well-rounded young people. From parents and caregivers to community-based organizations like libraries and after-school programs, everyone has a role to play. By being creative and expansive in forming community partnerships, school leaders can introduce their students to new support systems and learning opportunities.
This is just an overview of the many principles of practice that we lay out in the full report. All are tied together by a common belief among the panel of educators who developed them: Students should graduate from high school prepared to succeed in life, not just in the classroom. We hope these principles form one part of the roadmap to making social, emotional and academic development a reality for each and every child.
Learning, by its very nature, is social and emotional. As educators who represent varied roles, geographical locations and community demographics, we know from experience that the practices outlined in this report are effective. This work deserves a place at the forefront of our nation’s education agenda.
Sheldon Berman is the superintendent of schools in Andover, Massachusetts, and a member of the Council of Distinguished Educators of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.