Around the country, students of all ages are wrapping up a months-worth of grueling testing in math, language arts, science, and social studies. The American Institute for Research (AIR) has touted this years’ round of assessments as fusing “statistics, technology, and content into powerful K-12 formative, summative, and supplemental products and services.” The company’s website goes on to suggest that the assessment tools “advance instruction and learning” that ultimately inform instruction and that pinpoint student understanding. These are lofty goals in a challenging field.
While fine-tuning the particulars of the content-oriented testing, the same organization has been working to find ways to measure the “softer skills” of social and emotional learning (SEL). AIR is working with schools around the country to find effective ways to measure these not-to-be-forgotten skills. Schools everywhere are looking for ways to build up their students’ SEL while looking for data that suggests their efforts are paying off. Why the buzz?
In a longitudinal study reported in the New York Times last summer (*David Bornstein: “Teaching Social Skills to Improve Grades and Lives”), student future success on measures including graduation rate, completion of college diplomas, and full-time employment were directly related to scores that they had received from teachers on social and communication skills while the students were in kindergarten!
This research, and scores of other similar studies in recent years, support the notion that for educators to get the best bang for their buck, they should ideally focus on programs that embed the core competencies of social and emotional learning into the academic curricula. In fact, when looking at the impact on future wages and social costs (reduction in use of low income housing, reduction in crime, etc.), the economic return on investment for programs that promote social and emotional learning has been found to be $11 for every dollar invested.
The struggle has been how to incorporate more learning into a school-day already crammed with considerable core content for which teachers are accountable. Teachers, therefore, focus first on content, and then are likely to leave the social and emotional aspects of learning to “squeeze in” when they can. CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) has worked to support the effort by developing criteria for programs to follow when trying to embed the components into their existing initiatives. These core factors of social and emotional learning – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making – seem like tricky concepts for teachers who are steeped in sharing curricular content with students. However, broken down, they may be more basic, and therefore, easily translatable than one would guess at first blush.
Through self-awareness students learn to identify and communicate clearly about their thoughts and feelings. They become aware of the nuances of their strengths and learn how to use them more often. In addition, self-awareness leads to the students’ understanding about the crucial supports they have from their families, their school, and their community. These skills can lead to a deeper understanding of their personal and school responsibilities.
In developing self-management skills, students learn to regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a variety of environments. This can help them cope with stress as well as manage impulsive behavior. They begin to learn more deeply about honesty and integrity. In addition, self-management gives students the rudimentary skills needed in setting and reaching meaningful goals.
Social awareness enhances students’ ability to recognize social cues, respond with empathy when others are in need, and develop a desire to positively contribute to the community. These are crucial skills for an individual, but perhaps more importantly, for the classroom and the community at large. It is only through empathy, acceptance of differences, and compassion for the human spirit that a community can come together and work toward a better future.
Relationship skills, the fourth core concept in social and emotional learning, can provide students with the competency to resolve interpersonal conflicts while building support systems that encourage and even champion their efforts in the various processes of solving problems and making decisions. Students learn about using positive communication and effective social skills to interact successfully with others. In so doing, they cultivate constructive relationships with individuals of diverse backgrounds, abilities, languages, and lifestyles.
Through each of these components, students practice goal-setting and decision-making, setting the stage for a thoughtful approach to their life as each year goes by. Decision-making is therefore informed by each of the other components, tied to an increased self-awareness and a willingness to look deeply at what it means to be “true to yourself” and to a growing understanding of how to manage oneself and the challenges that arise with others.
Simple enough concepts, but how can they be incorporated into a busy teacher’s classroom?
Thriving Learning Communities (TLC) at Mayerson Academy has found a unique approach to helping teachers incorporate these concepts into the classroom, using the language of character strengths. Beginning with a focus on the individual teacher’s self-awareness of her own strengths, TLC has developed a flexible and creative curriculum for use in classrooms, grades 5 – 8, to support teacher in embedding social and emotional learning in individual guided lessons, or in small snippets of time, delivered throughout the week. Students and teachers alike quickly adopt this language of positivity. Teachers like using the approach to spot strengths in their students, naming moments of zest, self-control, perseverance, and honesty as strengths that they see surfacing with regularity in their classrooms. For their part students find immediate meaning in the language of strengths: their readiness to embrace their own strengths and start naming those of classmates goes far in laying a foundation for a culture shift toward compassion, collaboration, community.
Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon. These are areas that students will need as foundations to finding their place in the world. But the language of strengths and the social and emotional learning that it advances can serve the whole child in enhancing learning and performance during the school day and well into the future.