A teacher’s job is to teach a student; is that not all there is to it? As simple as it sounds, the role of educators requires more than just drilling math and grammar into children’s brains. Being a Lead Tutor for a class of sixth graders through their Bridge program, I know that my job goes beyond the academic curriculum, and it requires me to connect with my students and teach them skills they will need as they enter the adult world.
Yet, this idea that students are individual human beings that need social and emotional development is relatively new within the education discourse. Fortunately, there have been extensive commitments by organizations such as CASEL to promote the importance of social and emotional learning. On the same path, the Aspen Institute created the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development to move forward with the whole child agenda by developing recommendations for research, policy, and practice with the help of students, educators, local organizations, policymakers, and researchers.
On January 15, 2019, the National Commission held an event to officially release their report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, on their findings regarding the social, emotional, and academic development of children and their recommendations for states and local communities going forward. Among their findings, they found that social and emotional development is closely linked to the academic development of a child; in other words, the child’s cognitive brain learns with the social and emotional brain. What are the implications for practitioners and policymakers? For educators, this finding means that teaching should not only involve focusing on academic content but also promoting social, emotional, and cognitive skills, such as the abilities to respect others, cope with stress, and solve a problem. For policymakers, this means that their policies have to support educators and administrators in successfully embedding social and emotional learning (SEL) within the curriculum.
Translating SEL policies from the state to the classroom level is not an easy task – there are some caveats policymakers need to take into consideration. During the policy panel of the event, a member of the Arkansas Senate, Joyce Elliot, voiced her concerns about policymaking and misalignment. As a policymaker and former teacher, Joyce understands that successful implementation of SEL into the school curriculum requires the collaboration of state leaders and local practitioners, such as educators, school administrators, and youth organizations. For policy to work, Joyce urged state leaders to give educators a space to communicate and work with policymakers to ensure that the proposed policies will successfully translate into the classroom.
The National Commission compiled a list of recommendations for state policymakers related to educating the whole child. Below is one of the four policy recommendations and some actions states can take to ensure that implementation is successful:
Establish a common set of goals with local practitioners.
- Work together to define what the whole child means, accounting for their social, emotional, and academic skills, character values, and abilities.
- Redefine student success and set new goals for success, keeping in mind the social and emotional development of the child.
- Ensure that the new goals and definitions are applied to state, district, and school standards and guidelines.
- Cater the approach to the unique needs and characteristics of the states and its students; in other words, work with existing initiatives to make sure that goals are successfully translated to policy and practice.
State policymakers need to work with local practitioners and stakeholders to ensure that the new SEL policies will be implemented successfully at the classroom level. In 2015, Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island worked collaboratively with the Children’s Cabinet to create a strategic plan that fosters children’s well-being by redefining their goals for student success, which now incorporates SEL. Her cabinet includes local health organizations, departments of education and youth, and a child advocate. By collaborating with different groups of practitioners, Governor Raimondo ensured that her team will yield the best outcomes for their youth.
Today, more than half of the states have either embedded SEL within their standards or provided resources to support the implementation of SEL. Kansas is one of the few states back in 2013 to successfully embed social and emotional learning goals into their PreK-12 standards. Additionally, with the help of CASEL through their Collaborating States Initiative, New York added SEL goals into their PreK-12 standards in 2018.
Social and emotional learning accounts for all aspects of a child’s well-being. As an educator, I strove to learn more about my students’ individual stories and needs in order to develop the skills and abilities they will need to learn, cope, and thrive in this world. Yet, I cannot do it alone. Infusing SEL in the classroom curriculum requires state leaders and local practitioners to build a collaborative community to help actualize the recommendations within the report. As Timothy Shriver, Co-Chair of the National Commission, asserted, we must work to make this “blueprint a footprint” towards a better future for our youth, in which they are capable of feeling, connecting, and learning as a whole individual. Is that not what our job is, as education practitioners, researchers, and policymakers?