September 18, 2019
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How learning can go beyond academics

Social and emotional learning aims to build skills and foster behaviors to accelerate students’ progress and help them navigate through life.

A focus on social and emotional learning can effect engagement in the classroom. Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Imagine a classroom. The teacher and students are dedicated to not only passing, but getting the highest scores on the district assessment. They take practice tests and prioritize learning state objectives. All things in the classroom work toward the state test and academic gain above all other pursuits. What will the students in this classroom learn?

Imagine another classroom in the same district. The teacher and students are dedicated to not only passing, but getting the highest scores on the district assessment. They take practice tests and prioritize academic learning. Only in this classroom, alongside academic learning, the students learn about themselves, how they learn, building relationships, how they manage emotions, and more. The teacher fosters learning about their community, politics, and building empathy. The classroom holistically supports health and social, emotional, and identity development. What will the students in this classroom learn?

What if focusing solely on academic strengths and challenges of the first classroom isn’t enough? What if one of the keys to unlocking and accelerating students’ academic progress, is understanding and supporting their social and emotional development? We’ve all heard the buzz words by now: “social-emotional learning,” or SEL for short, and “educating the whole child.” But what exactly do these concepts mean? And are they really important?

What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social and emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions,”according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization leading the field in SEL.

SEL can happen in any setting, not only school. Similarly, it doesn’t happen only when a student is being directly taught these skills. This learning can happen during any experience.

Research has found many benefits to strong SEL incorporation in schools. CASEL has noted that SEL programs are linked to higher academic achievement and improved behavior.

What is Whole Child Approach?

A whole child approach incorporates these multiple ways a child develops and doesn’t prioritize any of them over another. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is working to bring what we currently know about human development into the world of education. The science of human development shows us that children have many areas critical to a holistic development. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative names those areas as: mental health, cognitive development, social emotional development, identity development, academic development, and physical health.

Fostering a child in these multiple development areas creates a stronger environment for the child to flourish in various areas, leading them to live into their full potential.

Why Are These Ideas Important?

In the United States today, the circumstances of a child’s birth strongly predict the opportunities they will have. Of all circumstances, race, class, and perceptions of ability are the most impactful. The current education system is not supporting all children into growing to their complete ability. It is critical that this change. This change is possible in part through the mindsets and actions of teachers being aligned to SEL and the whole child approach.

With teachers being oriented to SEL and the whole child approach, transformation is possible. The classroom would be responsive to the needs of the student’s whole development. The teacher would keep front of mind how, at times, other development needs can interfere with a student’s ability to learn. For instance, a student may be going through a physical health challenge. This could be not enough sleep, water, or inadequate access to needed prescription glasses. These conditions have an impact on the student’s brain and their ability to gain and sustain engagement. A teacher with an orientation to the whole child will know that learning isn’t happening in a void, and any of these barriers need to be addressed. Students need to bring their whole self into the classroom instead of leaving parts of their life and experience at the door. This creates an equitable, strong, and brave learning environment.

This manner of teaching leads to a process where the relationship between student and teacher thrives. There is a mutual respect and appreciation for one another. An environment is created where teachers and students can examine their lived experience, aspects of power and oppression, and work towards systems change.

SEL and the whole child approach allows students to build an understanding of cultural identity and diversity, inequities in their environments, and an awareness of their potential to pursue equity within their community contexts and beyond. When paired with culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy, it can accelerate the progress of all students, guard against bias, and promote cultural competency.

How Do These Concepts Show Up in Classrooms?

The goal-setting process of a classroom sets that classroom on a trajectory. It is critical that during this process there are not only academic goals but also goals that speak to the whole child, including their social and emotional development.

Rooting a classroom in a broad set of student outcomes and indicators helps teachers develop strong visions for their classroom. Aspirational student outcomes should reflect a holistic view of learning by showing indicators in sectors beyond academic growth and extending into personal growth, access, and social and political consciousness. Additionally, having these student-level goals charge teachers to support student growth in responsible decision-making, long-term skills, understanding identity, and more.

This type of orientation and professional development creates a teacher that brings certain things to the classroom. They strive to make their lessons and projects local and reflective of the students’ social and political landscape. When working with others, students are not only reaching towards an academic goal, but also using this opportunity to build the skills and behaviors needed to collaborate with others in the future. This classroom has a greater likelihood of creating a learning environment that is focused on child’s holistic development.

What Can Ultimately Be Achieved?

When SEL and whole child approach are built into the learning in a classroom, there is so much to be gained. Studies have found that when these concepts are included in education, academic achievement, graduation rates, and attendance go up. And suspension and disciplinary incidents go down.

This truly actualizes a classroom that many teachers strive to create and sustain. Kids are excited to come to school and stay engaged in learning. They feel cared for as whole people and members of a community. Students are learning about themselves and one another, seeing school as a place where they grow in many ways.

Reid Hickman

Reid Hickman serves on Teach For America’s Teacher Leadership Development team and leads the national work TFA does around learning environment. He has taught on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and in Gary, IN. He has also served on the regional Teacher For America Connecticut team as a coach and manager of coaches.