Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

By: Maria Salciccioli, Senior Policy Analyst

Earlier this month, I attended the Aspen Institute’s event: The Practice Base for How We Learn: Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. The event was cohosted with the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. I was interested to learn what they’d be saying, in part because the State Board of Education’s ESSA Task Force is examining all aspects of how to provide a well-rounded education, and focusing on students’ emotional as well as academic development is increasingly gaining respect as a key strategy.

Aspen’s event was centered on a brief, The Practice Base for How We Learn, which provides ideas for integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into academics. Aspen brought in panelists, primarily practitioners, to talk about how the elements of the brief play out in districts across the country. It is more rare than it should be to see educators leading conversations at education policy events, so I was excited to see, among others, 2017 teacher of the year Sydney Chaffee. Panelists identified implementation best practices, including:

  • Shift focus from individual students to the learning environment
  • Do not assume that SEL is just for certain students – all children and all adults need it
  • Let students identify when they need to briefly leave the classroom to meet their own emotional needs

The event then shifted into the brief’s policy and practice implications – specifically, they addressed what needs to shift in order to create systems that fully integrate social-emotional and academic learning. A second panel, moderated by the CEO of the New Teacher Center and featuring a mix of teacher and administrators, discussed next steps districts and states need to take. The moderator, Ellen Moir, noted that the fact because it would be impossible to get every single person in education on the same page was no excuse not to push for equity.

Panelists talked about their strategies for infusing SEL into school culture and academics – one principal talked about faculty teams that engage in team building together through scavenger hunts and other relationship-building events. Teachers are all trained in culturally responsive teaching, mindfulness, and trauma-informed care. She added that it is crucial to practice SEL skills, and teachers do it at every faculty meeting. Teachers practice active listening together, and this helps them teach the skill to students more easily.

Another panelist, a former teacher of the year, talked about similar practices at her school – teachers practice yoga together, building strong relationships with one another. She reiterated the importance of building teacher relationships so they can model this camaraderie for students. She talked about the fact that SEL is not just for high-risk students – all students can benefit. Her district invited businesses to her small school community and helped build relationships between students and adults. Outreach went both ways – a community art center reached out and said they realized none of the students had taken art classes, and they had a chance to develop English and art skills simultaneously. “That’s what social and emotional learning is all about,” she said, “partnering and realizing that it’s everyone’s job to educate our kids.”

One administrator was asked how to find time for SEL initiatives, and he said that teachers are likely to feel overwhelmed with any new initiative, but SEL work truly builds capacity and improves quality. His school has a system called equate (EQ8) – a team focuses on building SEL programming to scale. All Connecticut teachers must write student-learning objectives, and the EQ8 team asks teachers to write objectives focused on SEL, and they examine how existing practices already integrate SEL and can have an even greater SEL focus – as an example, English teachers who are teaching Hamlet ask students to assess Hamlet’s mood and feelings at different points in the play. This approach minimizes the additional burden teachers feel.

The last panelist said that a lot of engagement focuses on what schools will and won’t do, rather than what can be done to support students. He expressed an appreciation for this approach, which lets students show up as their whole selves.

While I enjoyed the panel, its focus was largely on implementation, which meant that much of the information doesn’t apply directly to the State Board’s work. However, it is always great to learn about new research and best practices, and I look forward to bringing this information to our ESSA Task Force. Its School Climate committee is comprised of practitioners who can make recommendations about best practices for all of the District’s schools, and I think this will be a good addition to their knowledge base.


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