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High Schools That Walk the Social-Emotional Walk (and Don't Just Talk the Talk)

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This post is by MarYam G. Hamedani, associate director of Stanford University's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

A dozen sophomore girls at the International School of the Americas (ISA) in San Antonio, Texas, sprawl over posters, working to untangle questions about women's rights in preparation for a virtual exchange with a school in Jordan, part of an effort to build cultural awareness and foster global citizenship.

In an earlier class, the students at this majority Latino, middle-class school created "conflict trees" that showed the roots (sources) and branches (effects) of the societal conflict they wanted to discuss with their Jordanian peers. Their original question was, "How does religion play a role in women's rights and what is being done to improve women's rights?" Kneeling down to students' eye level, the teacher gently prods the girls to think deeper about their own potential cultural biases in framing the question. After a vigorous back and forth, the sophomores decide to focus on the relationship between a commitment to human rights and traditional beliefs--something they say is relevant to both their own lives and the lives of the Jordanian teens.

This scene offers a window into the embedded day-to-day values and practices of a small, public magnet high school campus that marries schoolwide social emotional learning with social justice education. Our Stanford University research team studied in-depth ISA and two other urban high schools--Fenway High School in Boston and El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn--to capture effective social emotional learning practices in socioeconomically and racially diverse high schools. The schools are non-selective in their admissions and high-performing compared to other schools in their districts.

A growing body of research shows that when schools attend to students' psychological, social, and emotional development alongside academic learning, student engagement and academic achievement improve. Less well understood is how practices that address these so-called "soft skills" can be carried out on a school-wide basis--rather than a stand-alone intervention program--especially at the high school level. Our study, "Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate and Empower Youth," at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, seeks to fill this gap.

Through detailed case studies and a cross-case analysis, a student survey, and a comparison of student survey results to a national sample of students, we explored the ways these high schools design, implement, and practice school-wide social emotional learning, and its effect on students' educational experiences and outcomes.

Our research team saw first-hand and heard from teachers, administrators and students how social justice learning amplified students' social emotional learning. This dual approach focuses not just on students' own self-awareness and self-management skills, but helps students identify and understand the broader societal forces that can stand in the way of academic success and social progress. While psychological supports alone don't erase the burden of poverty or eliminate the challenges faced by historically underserved students, they can help mitigate the effects and clear a path for achievement. The three high schools we profile successfully integrated social justice education to develop students who are engaged, empowered, socially responsible citizens.

We map how each school carries out social emotional and social justice education through the school's climate and culture, organizational features and structures, and practices. Though each school studied operates in a very different context, each is unabashedly focused on developing the "whole child." Among our findings across the study schools:

  • Social emotional learning forms part of graduation expectations and is baked into the school mission, not treated as an add-on or afterthought.
  • Leaders and teachers foster a strong sense of trust, safety and community among adults and students and help students see themselves as active learners.
  • "Family" structures (a house or academy system) further personalize relationships and foster social responsibility.
  • Though social emotional learning permeates the school day, advisory provides a regular time and place for direct instruction on social emotional and social justice skills.
  • Community-based partnerships let students practice skills in real-world settings.
  • Teachers integrate social emotional learning with academics both in what they teach (topics and assignments are relevant and engaging) and how they teach (fostering student resilience and a growth mindset.)

For example, the mission of Fenway is to create a socially and morally committed community of learners who value one another as individuals. We observed that respectful interactions were widely modeled by the school leadership and faculty, and were expected of students. There is a sense that everyone is on the same side, part of a purposeful community, and deeply invested in that community. Students are consistently surrounded by school staff who are committed to helping them grow socially, emotionally, and academically. Fenway staff members tend to stay on, and say that they do not experience burn-out out because they philosophically believe in the culture of the school and feel like they are a part of something important.

Another example of effective practice can be seen at El Puente, where social emotional and social justice learning is deeply integrated with academics. El Puente's principal explained, "Social justice learning allows students not only to learn about historical implications of slavery or poverty or any of these issues that have plagued our communities, but also bring back the connection to my life, my community, what still plagues us, and what we can do about it." Even the more traditional courses, such as physics, include a social justice component designed to empower students and provide them with the experience of giving back to the community. When students in a recent physics course built race cars for a class project, they brought the cars to a local elementary school to teach the younger students about the physics of building vehicles and then raced the cars along with them afterward.

At ISA, through advisory, students are asked to reflect on their own growth or place in the world almost every week of their high school career.

In our student survey, compared to students in a sample of national comparison high schools, students in the study schools reported more positive educational experiences; felt more connected to school; demonstrated higher levels of psychological and emotional support, engagement and empowerment; and were more socially engaged. One student told us: "At ISA, the teachers expect more from you, and they trust you more, and they teach you more, and they care more."

While we can't clearly prove direct cause and effect between the schools' social emotional and social justice skill building and positive student responses, our findings suggest these approaches hold promise.

But what is clear is that failing to meet students' psychological, social, and emotional needs will continue to fuel gaps in opportunity and achievement for students--in particular, low-income students and students of color--who are frequently underserved by the large, one-size-fits-all schools they attend. We urge practitioners and policymakers to:

  • Erase the cognitive/noncognitive divide: Students need both academic and psychological support.
  • Understand that social emotional learning is also not one-size-fits-all--it must be grounded in the specific needs of diverse student communities.
  • Align social emotional learning with student development through elementary, middle and high school.
  • Engage systemic, whole-school change. Simply adding an isolated program isn't enough.
  • Explicitly teach social emotional skills and make sure school practices reinforce them.
  • Include a social emotional perspective in curricular and assessment policies.
  • Establish discipline approaches that preserve relationships, respect dignity, and provide psychological support.
  • Train educators in social emotional learning and child development.
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