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3 Reasons to Be Optimistic About Social and Emotional Learning

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By Dan Brown

It may be glacial and overdue, but the American public school system is taking steps to embrace social and emotional learning. For a nation in crisis and considering wellness like never before, a silver lining may be a clear move to put humans at the center of our education system. A breakthrough body of work from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development shows us the way.

Here are three reasons I'm a believer that the next few years could bring a rapid evolution of social and emotional learning in American schools.

1) People are united on this

Last month, the Commission's Council of Distinguished Educators released consensus statements affirming the necessity of weaving together social, emotional, and academic learning at all times. The Council is an Avengers-style super-team of respected practitioners and leaders in K-12 and higher education.

CDE event.jpegAll principals and superintendents -- leaders who often find themselves discouraged from innovating -- now have the cover of this august group's unanimous, emphatic support for launching initiatives to elevate social and emotional learning. You're not out on a limb if you're aligned with respected system leaders like Meria Carstarphen, Sonja Brookins Santelises, and Eric Gordon.

It's not just educators rallying around this work. Last fall, a diverse all-star team of scholars comprising the Council of Distinguished Scientists made a parallel case of consensus statements.

The education sector has learned its lesson and is broadcasting it loud and clear: social, emotional, and academic development matters.

2) Teachers (as usual) are quietly leading the way

Sydney Chaffee, National Teacher of the Year and co-author of Aspen's The Practice Base for How We Learn, shared that she has long dedicated a physical space in her high school classroom called the "Break Box." If a student wants to go to the Break Box, for any reason, they have the freedom to do that. Providing this option confers agency to the student to process their feelings in a literal safe space. This is something every classroom can have.

The good news is that Ms. Chaffee, who has been visiting schools and educators across the country for the past year, is seeing Break Boxes (each with their own name) everywhere. This wasn't the case ten years ago. With or without schoolwide programs or initiatives, teachers are letting their students know it's okay to feel surging emotions, and that they are there to support them through it.

3) Future and present teachers crave this

For decades, NEA research has shown the top reason that teachers join the profession and the top reason they stay are the same: to work with young people. Indeed, the most energizing and gratifying part of teaching is all about helping students become their best selves. Social, emotional, and academic development is an indispensable part of making that happen. It's what fires up altruistic young people and persuades them to join and stay in the teaching ranks.

As Co-Director of Educators Rising, a national network of 45,000 teenage aspiring educators, I visited high schools all over the country to meet with students taking elective and career and technical education courses to study teaching. Some participants had always dreamed of teaching and referred to it like a calling. Most, though, just wanted to make a difference in the world and were exploring whether teaching could be their mechanism for that. In other words, these young people weren't inspired to teach math; they were inspired to teach math to people.

If the education system can signal to prospective teachers that connecting social, emotional, and academic learning will be central to their craft, our teaching talent pool will broaden. It will also re-energize current teachers who long for that best part of teaching -- the personal connection that enhances student learning. That should mean implementing more research-backed programs like PBIS and carving out opportunities for teachers to innovate -- Break Box-style -- based on their proximity to and knowledge of their students.

Photo: A panel discusses the Council of Distinguished Educators' consensus statements at an event at the Aspen Institute. (Riccardo Savi/The Aspen Institute)

Dan Brown is a National Board Certified Teacher and author of The Great Expectations School. Connect with him @DanBrownTeacher.

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