The purpose of public education is to ensure students are prepared to meaningfully contribute to society. While this means making sure they develop the thinking skills and content knowledge associated with the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies, it also means ensuring that students have the skills, attitudes and values that will allow them to use this education to succeed in an increasingly complex society. Indeed, studies show that since 1980, almost all of the job growth in the US has been in occupations requiring high social and emotional learning skills. SEL skills, which include self-awareness, social-awareness, self-management, decision-making and forging relationships, are foundational competencies for achievement in school, work and life. The question at hand is which states and districts will prioritize these skills to enhance student success?
As of December 2015, The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning reported that only four of the 50 states had developed comprehensive standards for SEL with developmental benchmarks. But there is good news. Several states have started that process, putting their students at a competitive advantage in this knowledge economy. In addition, the Aspen Institute recently initiated a national commission to discuss the importance of this work across the country, while the Every Student Succeeds Act has placed an increased emphasis on non-cognitive supports to student achievement. CASEL reports that more and more individual school districts and networks across the country — including mine, the Urban Assembly in New York City — are making SEL a priority. It’s apparent that teachers, parents and policy makers are realizing what kids have always known — that students perform better when their social-emotional development is prioritized across K-12 education, and we as a society benefit from this success.
At the Urban Assembly we have made social-emotional development a core tenet of our work with students. With 21 middle and high schools in our network serving more than 9,000 students in high-poverty areas of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, we know that by enhancing their social-emotional strengths, and developing areas of need, our students can overcome the many risk factors associated with poverty. We are confident that a student body comprised predominantly of underserved youth who could be the first in their family to attend college, many whom entered our schools well below grade level, will succeed not only in the test of school, but in the tests of life.
A focus on SEL skills equips our students to navigate all of life’s challenges, not just academics. It’s about forging relationships with teachers and with each other that will help students develop the resilience to break out of the cycle of poverty and contribute their talents to our society at large.
We have codified our approach to SEL through the Resilient Scholars Program (RSP). Our students and schools have demonstrated strong results with the number of incidents leading to suspensions decreasing and academics and school climate improving. These are the four tenets of our approach:
- Direct instruction: All students benefit from direct instruction and explicit development of the skills, attitudes, and values that promote resilience. We use SEL curriculum to teach these social emotional skills and mindsets, such as self-management, self-awareness, relationship skills, and growth mindset, to our staff and students.
- Alignment and integration: Direct instruction for social-emotional development is supported and reinforced through the integration and alignment of SEL concepts throughout the day and through enrichment activities, which often have implicit SEL skills embedded. Similarly, integrating SEL ideas and concepts throughout academic periods, counseling sessions, and in the school’s discipline system increases the exposure and maximizes learning.
- Sustainability of implementation: Sustainability of school-based initiatives is an essential component for creating routine, effective practice and long-term success. We developed a sustainability and implementation rubric which provides a framework for implementing those tasks critical to the fidelity and sustainability of the RSP.
- Social and emotional competencies assessment: In this era of accountability, schools care about what they can measure. The assessment of students’ social emotional competencies is an important indicator of successful SEL program implementation. The Resilient Scholar Program utilizes a standards-based online SEL Assessment to assess students’ social-emotional competencies and track growth over time. The assessment is also used as a formative assessment to guide SEL instruction within classrooms in order to best serve students’ social-emotional needs.
In the coming years, more and more districts will realize that social-emotional development is not ancillary to the work of educators, but foundational to it. The science, experience and desire of educators, businesspeople, parents and students, alike are all pointing toward the importance of adopting SEL programs and approaches in districts across the country. As the trend toward implementing such programs and approaches in school matures, we hope we can be an example for other districts in the coming years.
David Adams is director of social and emotional learning at the Urban Assembly in New York City. Prior to this role he served as social-emotional learning coordinator for District 75 in New York City. He has also worked internationally in schools in England and has published two papers on the topic. At Urban Assembly he oversees the Resilient Scholars Program that includes SEL curriculum and assessments. Urban Assembly uses Evo Social & Emotional by Apperson to develop students’ SEL strengths and needs to maximize their success upon graduation.
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