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Eight Lessons on Social-Emotional Learning From a Superintendent

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By Sheldon Berman

Across a 25-year career, I've served as a superintendent in four varied districts, from small exurban to large urban to suburban. In each, social and emotional learning has been pivotal in improving not only school climate, but also student academic performance, teacher morale, and students' sense of connectedness to school. Over time, my work has taught me a number of important lessons that are key to ensuring the success of social and emotional learning efforts, particularly when the goal is districtwide implementation.

1) Take Time to Plan  
Structuring the social environment of the classroom and school requires the same level of planning for consistency that we provide for the academic curriculum. Just as a consistent math curriculum methodically builds understanding of mathematical concepts in a logical sequence, social and emotional learning requires a coherent approach that includes clear messages, a common language, and sequential skill development.

2) Build Community in the Classroom
Social skills curricula build a valuable base, but social and emotional learning requires that teachers create caring, inclusive and socially instructive classroom communities. The sense of community in the learning environment fosters positive relationships among and between adults and students, and it supports connectedness to peers and to school.

3) Integrate Social and Emotional Learning into Academic Instruction
Opportunities to build students' social and emotional skills should be intentionally embedded throughout the academic curriculum. The teaching of reading can be infused with themes that illustrate social skills. Science investigations can embed instruction in cooperation and provide opportunities to practice it. This across-the-curriculum embedding helps cement social and emotional learning and demonstrate its academic value.

Berman 3.jpg

4) Highlight Your Classroom's Cultural Diversity
Community requires authenticity, particularly in terms of the cultural norms and identities that students bring to the classroom. Enabling students to make their cultural identities visible within the classroom and honoring the richness that the diversity of cultural perspectives brings to learning are essential elements of creating safe and affirming classrooms.

5) Leverage Learning Through Service
Service learning deepens the meaningfulness and value of social and emotional learning beyond the classroom. Students benefit from authentic vehicles for demonstrating their social skills and their sense of caring. Opportunities to extend service to others and to the community at large validate what they are learning in the classroom.

6) Productive Discipline Methods are Critical
Our methods of discipline can either foster or undermine our social and emotional learning goals. In a classroom and school community that focuses on relationships and learning, errors in judgment and behavior need to be addressed through logical consequences and restorative practices that help students learn to resolve differences, manage their emotions, and take the perspective of another.

7) Develop Social and Emotional Skills in Adults
As well as learning how to foster social and emotional learning for students, teachers and administrators need training and guided practice in modeling social skills, facilitating social development in conflict situations in the classroom, demonstrating cultural proficiency, and appreciating the impact of teachers' language on students' social interactions.

8) Articulate a Strong, Clear Vision―and Follow Through
Administrative vision and leadership are critical. Articulating a vision of the possible, providing a rationale for pursuing this work, and ensuring that policy and structural supports are in place are powerful statements of the administrator's commitment to prioritizing social and emotional learning.

Implementing a comprehensive approach requires incremental steps, starting with a simple foundation and deepening the approach over time. However, when done well, social and emotional learning can have an extraordinary impact on academic performance and school climate.

Its long-term impact is even broader. Through their experience with social and emotional learning, students begin to understand the meaning of the common good, appreciate the impact of their actions on those around them, and develop a sense of relatedness to and responsibility for the larger human community. It is the bridge to socially responsible citizenship.

Photo: Sheldon Berman greets a student (courtesy of Sheldon Berman).

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.

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