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A Nation at Hope: A Summary of the Aspen Institute’s Report on Social and Emotional Learning

Students in a classroom

After twenty-five years, the results are in. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social and Emotional and Academic Development has released their report on a new type of education. An education that encompasses not only academics but also social and emotional learning.

Students who have social and emotional learning as part of their education not only do better academically but do better at life as well.  After over two decades of research and countless man hours, hours put in by educators, researchers, parents, and students, the commission summarized what it has learned in a report released earlier this month.

They believe our nation needs a new kind of education. An education that focuses on not only academic skills but considers the whole child and encompasses social, emotional, and cognitive elements. And their report outlines just how we should accomplish it.

From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope

Part One: How students learn

Part one of the report looks at how people learn. To put it simply, effective education must focus on the whole child. It can no longer sacrifice social, emotional, and cognitive skills to the god of academics. Children do not acquire academic skills in a vacuum. In the past educators thought their limited time forced a choice between academic and social skills; that is no longer necessary. Students who learn social skills integrated with academics actually perform better in both areas.

Which leads to the other primary point in part one of the report: social and emotional skills can be taught. And to do it right, schools should include direct instruction in social, emotional, and cognitive skills as well as the integration of these topics with other academic work. In other words, teach SEL skills on their own and teach them integrated with academics too.

Part 2: Six recommendations for the future

Part two of the report boils down their findings into six recommendations for action.

Set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child.

We need to focus on the whole child. Research has proven that academic achievement depends on cognitive, social, and emotional skills. In the past, these skills have been called soft skills, but they’re anything but unimportant. Focusing on the whole child means teaching academics in conjunction with social, emotional, and cognitive skills. It means seeing students as people first and foremost. As one teacher put it, “I don’t teach math. I teach students math.” We must look at every aspect of students’ well-being and development and not compartmentalize their learning.

In addition, we must refine our picture of a successful student to reflect this understanding. We can no longer judge our children by the test scores they receive or how the district falls on national assessments. We must look at our children through a new lens. A successful student today is not limited to those who make the honor roll. Individual districts and schools must redefine what success looks like for their specific population. When we see and understand this new vision of success in students, we can then come together to formulate a plan to serve our children more effectively.

Transform learning settings so they are safe and supportive for all young people.

The biggest concern that parents today have for their children’s education, on the whole, is the safety of their children. Students cannot be successful if they do not feel safe in school, and we must address this concern.

But we cannot stop there. For a school to be a safe and supportive environment, we must also address inequitable practices. No two children are the same. And for each child in our nation today to have equal access to education does not mean giving them the same access.

Many factors in a child’s life affect their ability to be successful in school. These factors include such things as poverty, trauma, and special needs of the individual. Equitable practices must look at the needs of each individual, each school, and each community and put strategies in place to make sure everyone has equal (not the same) access to education.

In addition, schools need to affirm each student’s culture and background, give students a voice in their education and activities, and teach SEL skills rather than use punitive discipline.

Once schools put these practices in place, they must make regular assessments and adjustments as needed to reach their goals.

Change instruction to teach students social, emotional, and cognitive skills; embed these skills in academics and schoolwide practices.

As mentioned in part one of the report, effective social, emotional, and cognitive instruction includes classes that teach these skills directly as well as those that integrate SEL skills with academic instruction. Today’s schools need to do both, but they need to go beyond it as well. Social, emotional, and cognitive instruction should be a part of every aspect of the school setting (recess, lunchroom, hallways, extracurricular activities, etc.) and not just in stand-alone programs or lessons.

Instruction in SEL skills needs to happen throughout the day. They cannot be isolated to a particular classroom, teacher, or class period. To do this, teachers and staff need to be on the lookout for opportunities to teach social, emotional, and cognitive skills at any time, and they need to take advantage of those opportunities as well.

Many students receive social, emotional, and cognitive instruction outside of school hours (from families, community groups, faith-based institutions, etc.), but not all do. We must also work on making this instruction equitable for all students, giving all students, no matter their background, equal opportunity to learn these skills and ensure a successful future.

Build adult expertise in child development.

Whether your teachers have been on staff for one year or fifty, odds are they did not receive instruction in social, emotional, and cognitive learning as part of their teacher preparation programs. This means that to emphasize this type of instruction in our schools, we need to equip our teachers and staff in this new view of learning.

We cannot expect teachers to identify the teachable moments throughout the day if they have not had proper training in SEL skills. For educators, this means ongoing training for teachers and staff and support for them as they learn how to teach the whole child. For all of us, it means changes to teacher education programs, the hiring process, and the training of new teachers as well.

Not only do we need to take advantage of opportunities to teach this way throughout the day. We also need to be models of it ourselves.

As the report says, “If our goal is for children and youth to learn to be self-aware, to appreciate the perspective of others, to develop character and to demonstrate integrity, educators—both in and out of school—need to exemplify those behaviors within the learning community.”

Asking young people to do as we say is not enough. We must exemplify the skills, be living examples of healthy social, emotional, and cognitive living.

Align resources and leverage partners in the community to address the whole child.

Our students do not live in a vacuum nor do they learn in one. To educate the whole child, we must look at the child’s whole world. Many people play a role in the development and education of students at our schools. To be most effective in teaching social, emotional, and cognitive skills, we need to build partnerships with the greater community. Schools, families, community organizations, faith-based institutions, health services, and public agencies all contribute to healthy learning and development for young people today, whether that happens in the school or outside of it.

We must all work together. We must “blend and braid resources” to meet the needs of our students, and we must listen to students and families thoughts on what they and their children need.

Forge closer connections between research and practice by shifting the paradigm for how research gets done.

Much research is done in the field of learning and education, but not all of that research is written is usable ways for those who wade the waters of our schools on a daily basis. What works for academic journals does not often work for the teacher in the classroom. We need to bridge the gaps of communication and application to make current research available to those who can put its conclusions into practice. And we need to give educators a voice in how research is done.

Part 3: How we can come together to accomplish this

These are valuable goals for the future of education, but they can be daunting. Exactly how can we all come together to accomplish this great shift in the educational mindset of our country?

Some administrators may fear that asking teachers to focus on the whole child puts an undue burden on them. Not so. Some may be surprised that focus on the whole child actually frees teachers to teach in ways they already want to. In fact, when teachers are allowed to let their focus go beyond academics, students are more successful and teachers are happier and show better job retention.

These changes won’t happen overnight. We have some serious barriers to overcome.

Our teachers need training and ongoing support. We must develop partnerships with community organizations who play a role in the learning and development of our students from preK to grade twelve. We must address physical and mental health needs, substance abuse, food insecurity, homelessness, and other issues that can interfere with healthy child development and learning. And this must happen both in and outside schools. We must provide holistic support to families if we want our students to thrive.

Coordinating efforts won’t be easy, but when we focus on what our students need and how to best benefit them, we will see that the results are worth the efforts.

Moving Forward

Education is entering a new era. Our understanding of child development and academic learning is shifting from compartmentalized instruction to focus on the whole child. We still have much to learn, and implementing these strategies will take commitment and patience. But we are on the path and moving forward. Our destination? A nation whose hope has been fulfilled.

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