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Putting academics first by focusing on the whole child

A curriculum director explains why leaning into social and emotional learning this year is a key step in getting students back on track academically.

5 min read


Allison Shelley/Deeper Learning

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As a curriculum director, I believe it is our district’s responsibility to put academics first. Social and emotional learning and even physical development are important, and schools have a role to play in those areas as well, but the central component and goal of education should be the academic growth of our children.

This year, however, I believe that achieving that academic growth may require us to focus more strongly on our students as individuals, from their social and emotional development to their mastery of the skills that will most enable their future learning.

Prioritizing social-emotional learning

Ensuring that our teachers are able to develop positive relationships with their students is critical this year. Just as academic progress has been slowed by the pandemic, so has students’ emotional and interpersonal development. As a result, we’ve been a little more invested in ensuring that our students have positive relationships with their teachers.

We already had an SEL program, Capturing Kids’ Hearts from the Flippen Group, in place. Some of the strategies are simple and straightforward, such as teachers greeting students with a high-five, hug or, during the pandemic, hand sanitizer as they enter the classroom. They begin each day with a positive interaction that uses the student’s name.

Some of the strategies reflect a more fundamental shift. Instead of classroom rules, for example, our teachers now create social contracts with their students. A teacher may still ban gum-chewing in class, but students have more input into classroom expectations about how they will treat each other and work together.

We have a group of teachers dubbed Process Champions who work with other teachers as trainers of our SEL program and as advocates for the children in their buildings. Our Process Champions will get more training and guidance on where we can improve the relationships throughout our district. Meanwhile, we are maintaining our commitment to prioritizing academic standards.

Recognizing critical standards

At our district, we have long understood that some standards are more important than others. It’s just a matter of fact that certain skills are absolutely necessary for future learning and others are not. That doesn’t mean that we encourage our teachers to skip standards. Rather, we encourage teachers to know which standards are most critical and to be particularly mindful that their students learn them.

We look at a range of factors as we’re prioritizing standards, such as the leverage each one provides for future learning, the breadth and depth of the standard, and whether it will be assessed. 

This year, we’ve also been using Focus Skills, a collection of free resources from Renaissance, our assessment partner. In addition to pinpointing the most essential reading and math skills for future learning, the company has identified math Trip Steps — standards that tend to be harder for students to learn than the other skills in their grade.

Between our own prioritizations of the standards and these two resources, our teachers have a solid grasp not just of which standards are important in the grade they teach, but in the grades on either side as well. This year, students have more (and more varied) learning gaps than in a typical year, so this insight is particularly important. The resources let teachers help students by revisiting key concepts they missed last year by shifting the content’s scope and sequence or scaffold.

Formal and informal assessment

After identifying the standards from the previous grade that provide the foundations for this year’s skills, the next step is assessing students to see where they are. We have been sticking to our regular assessment practices in many ways. We are administering three benchmarking assessments throughout the year, for example. But assessment can stress out some students or make them nervous, so we have been encouraging our teachers to check in with less formal assessments, as well as shorter assessments, a little more frequently than in a normal year.

Our teachers are still using our standard Star Assessments, which give them a read on where their students are in about 20 minutes. They use the results to help them adjust their scope and sequence for the coming weeks, and then they can create even shorter, targeted assessments focused on a single standard to monitor student progress. These targeted assessments are only about a half dozen questions and take about five minutes for students to complete.

This year, it’s also been very important to remember that we can assess students informally. Asking students to give a thumbs up to agree with a statement may be an assessment. Asking them what they know about a topic at the beginning of class is a great way to figure out if we need to back up a bit and go over some key concepts that are still a little fuzzy from last year.

This school year is a challenging one, with more learning gaps than usual. We’re confident in the work we’re doing and confident our students will grow academically if we give them a safe and supportive environment in which to do so.


Dave Gibbons, Ed.D., is the curriculum director at Schuyler Community Schools, where teachers are using Focus Skills and Trip Steps to accelerate learning, as well as Capturing Kids’ Hearts for SEL. He can be reached via email.


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