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Social and Emotional Skills are the Foundation for Deeper Learning

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This post is by Chris Harried, an incoming graduate student at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education and a Commissioner for the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

As a kid, I was a bright-eyed young man from East Baltimore with a lot of questions, but very few answers. As a young adult studying to become a teacher, I still have a lot of questions. But of one thing I am certain: School was where I built my identity and discovered my true self.

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I have no doubt that if it weren't for the investment of my teachers and mentors, I would not have continued my studies and become a first-generation college graduate. As a nation, we need to ensure that more students get support to learn, flourish, and grow as young people. Success cannot be left to chance. That solid foundation from which people learn deeply is what we call social and emotional learning (SEL). It's essential if students are to fulfill their potential and achieve academic success.

Today, I am drawing on my school experiences in my work as a member of the Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Those experiences elicit mixed emotions and memories. I remember leaping through what seemed like a never-ending array of hurdles to accomplish my goal to complete college. I was fortunate to have discovered that there were few other options for young men of color of my background that wouldn't severely curtail my chances of a good life.

At school, I was no longer the son of a drug addict and a felon. I could think of myself as an honor student bound for a college scholarship, thanks to elementary school teachers who helped me to dream big and chase the stars. It was here that I earned my first college scholarship and began to conceptualize the possibility of earning higher education.

In middle school, things got more difficult. Peers teased me because of my academic achievements. I was robbed and harassed traveling to and from school. I drifted to the back of my classes, dreaded school, and eventually began acting out as a means of coping. Thankfully, my family helped me recommit to my college plan. So did a caring assistant principal who told me, "You have a lot of potential, but if you don't get your attitude and anger in check, you'll limit your horizons."

Fortunately, high school was different. I entered a small learning community where I was able to experience a comprehensive approach to social, emotional, and academic development. Members of my school's staff and faculty developed not just our minds, but our characters. I felt my anger begin to ebb. Teachers knew we had to learn to persist with tasks, work collaboratively, solve problems, and believe in ourselves if we were going to succeed.

As a member of the National Commission, I'm privileged to witness innovative efforts to integrate SEL practices in schools and classrooms across the nation. Guided by research, these efforts encourage the holistic growth of young people that is essential to deeper learning - and exactly the same approaches that made my high school experience so positive. Here are four big steps we must take to accelerate these efforts and create the schools all students need: 

Create a culture of collaboration. Teachers and administrators must work together to create a supportive and caring learning community. This requires leadership that can set the tone, create opportunities for training, and carve out time for teachers to get out of their classrooms and work together to identify and address issues they have or that their students face. It also means giving students opportunities to collaborate and guidance on how to do it well.

Establish caring environments. Students need to know that every adult at school is concerned about their success. How do you know if this is happening? It starts with regular and respectful interaction between adults and students. And even if an adult doesn't work directly with a student, he or she helps to reinforce a supportive school culture. This is just as true in high school as it is in elementary school.

Pay attention to school climate. The National Commission was in Cleveland recently for site visits and public hearings. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District was chosen because it has worked for a decade to integrate the social, emotional, and academic dimensions of learning. One pillar of this work is the use of planning centers where students can go to speak with trained adults about the emotions and disruptions in their lives that are getting in the way of learning. The district says this approach has helped reduce disciplinary actions significantly. An administrator explained the approach this way: "It's about conversations first, consequences second."

Don't Ignore High School: A lot of adults think of social and emotional learning as something that is done in elementary school. In middle school and high school, the focus on academics kicks in and students are told to become responsible for their own learning. But some students think they can't learn, or don't know how or when to ask for help. They need continued support to manage their emotions, accomplish group tasks, advocate for themselves, and not be afraid to ask questions, among other skills. It takes continued attention to social and emotional development to support mastery of challenging academic content.

As I eagerly look toward my time as a teacher this fall, my focus is on ensuring I have the tools necessary to connect content with social and emotional skills. If our nation's current contentious climate has taught me anything, it's that academic learning is part of an equation that includes learning to manage ourselves and get along respectfully to build a just society. 

 

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