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Atlanta Journal Constitution: Is social and emotional learning a critical element in student success?

By Steve Majors Jan. 17, 2019

The evidence is clear: Students thrive when we nurture not only their minds, but their hearts.

Decades of neuroscience tell us children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development is deeply interlinked and that nurturing students’ nonacademic skills gives them a significant boost in school. Researchers have found an 11 percentage point gain in grades and test scores for children taught skills such as collaborating, listening and being empathetic, and persevering in the face of stress and challenges. 

Now a new Aspen Institute report underscores the consensus among experts that these skills are a gateway to learning and should be emphasized across the curriculum and throughout and after the school day. This fresh understanding of what kids need, and how to provide it, should be the next sea change in American education.

Atlanta Public Schools is in the vanguard, having committed to socio-emotional learning in 2015. Yet in Georgia and across the nation, too few public schools are doing enough to give students these essential building blocks for learning and life. To adequately prepare students and secure the future of our civil society and economy, we can’t treat competencies such as self-awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills as add-ons. We should teach them to every student, embracing them as antidotes to key challenges facing our education system and society. 

Among the most pressing are the deep inequities experienced by low-income students and students of color and the fact that, overall, our students’ academic achievement remains stuck in the middle of the pack among other comparable nations. Meanwhile, occupations that require mastery of social and emotional skills continue to grow more quickly than other fields, and the majority of employers lament the scarcity of workers with these vital skills. And with the lowest rates of social trust in generations and the fraying of American communities, our nation could use a generation of new leaders who know how to work together across difference.

Americans weary of wave after wave of educational reform may fear this is another new fad soon to be abandoned. 

But this solution is backed by those most invested in teaching our children. Nine out of 10 teachers believe teaching social and emotional skills benefits students. And when students develop social and emotional skills, their behavior is better, and teachers have more time for classroom instruction. For parents, children’s emotional well-being is a top concern. And a majority of current and recent high school students say going to a school that promotes this type of learning would enable them to learn more, gain real-world skills, and prepare for college and careers. 

Already ripples of change are happening in large districts and individual schools, where students learn in groups, work in teams, share critiques and feedback, and gain coping skills. And the work goes beyond the classroom.

In a pilot study begun in 2011 by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, eight large school districts — including Cleveland Municipal School District, Austin Independent School District and, starting in 2015, Atlanta — embedded social and emotional learning into every aspect of what they do: strategic planning, classroom teaching, learning standards, graduation pathways, teacher training, school climate and culture, relationships with families, and even social services.

Schools cannot do this work alone. Here in Atlanta, the nonprofit Communities In Schools of Atlanta, which partners with the district to serve students in need, includes social and emotional learning among the supports provided outside of school. 

CASEL’s pilot cities saw improvements on a number of measures, including academic achievement, student engagement and behaviors, school climate, and graduation rates. Their example makes clear the potential for bringing social and emotional learning to every student across the nation. 

To reach that goal, we need to get community leaders and school administrators in every district on board to support this work, make sure teachers get the training they need, and stick with it over time. Our investments will have a hefty economic return: $11 for every $1 invested

What we’re calling for may seem like a huge lift in a nation where just about every social issue divides us. But our decade and a half of progress on the dropout crisis provides a clear blueprint. Increased graduation rates between 2001 and 2017 have meant 3 million more students graduated rather than dropped out, and the gap  between black and white students’ dropout rates has dwindled. Today, more than 8 in 10 of high school students graduate — an all-time high — and college enrollment has doubled for African Americans and more than doubled for Hispanic students.

Those dramatic improvements happened because a committed coalition of nonprofits, governors’ offices, school districts, academia and businesses made keeping students in school a priority. They succeeded by listening to the perspectives of students who dropped out of school, identifying the 15 percent of schools that were dropping out 50 percent of the students, and putting in place “early warning” systems that help get students the supports they need to stay on track to graduation.

By marshaling similar forces to put social and emotional learning in every classroom, we can ensure every student gets the most out of school and is adequately prepared for life. We know what works. It’s time to help schools make it happen.