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With Social and Emotional Learning, All Kids Have a Chance to Thrive

November 21, 2016

Tree_of_lifeIt may not be a typical elementary school exercise. And, with the trend in education toward more rigid and punitive systems of testing and discipline, that's the point.

In a classroom in Anchorage, Alaska, first- and second-graders can be found brainstorming a list of conflicts — cutting in line, name-calling, swiping someone else's milk carton — and taking time to develop shared strategies for resolving each.

It's simply one of the many ways social and emotional learning (SEL) skills are taught to more than 48,000 students in the Anchorage School District, where SEL is being successfully implemented.

SEL helps children — and adults — manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

The premise of social and emotional learning is simple: If students are exposed to positive, supportive school environments and personnel (including socially and emotionally competent adults, from bus drivers to teachers), and are equipped with social-emotional models that can help them navigate their lives, they will be in a better position to learn and thrive.

Seems like common sense to me. Yet in far too many classrooms, it's far from common practice. We're still asking students to leave their emotions at the door, and to leave the complex and challenging realities of their lives — including the effects of trauma, poverty, and violence — at home.

Fortunately, a growing body of evidence suggests that incorporating sound SEL practices in schools works — for students as well as adults.

Thousands of miles from Alaska, in an underresourced Connecticut school district where 99 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and 39.9 percent of students live in poverty, Bridgeport Public Schools once stood as a monument to dysfunction and scandal. When Fran Rabinowitz became interim superintendent of BPS several years ago, she had a vision for changing the district's culture and performance level but realized change would have to start from the top, albeit in an unconventional way: not just by initiating tough conversations with district and school leaders, but by encouraging them to identify and articulate their emotions.

Rabinowitz already believed deeply in the transformative promise of SEL, so she started by working with teachers and administrators to teach them SEL skills. The teachers then went on to model and teach SEL to students. Since then, precipitous drops in both in-school (50 percent) and out-of-school (55 percent) suspensions have been recorded. And teachers have reported using SEL skills in challenging circumstances — for example, when a school is facing budget cuts or a student is acting out — to regulate and guide their own emotions in a constructive rather than punitive or destructive direction.

These examples — and many others — are shared in Social and Emotional Learning: Why Students Need It and What School Districts Are Doing About It, a report just released by Education First and the NoVo Foundation that chronicles the promising SEL work from three school districts across the United States — Sacramento, Bridgeport, and Anchorage.

Today, more and more school districts see SEL as a proven strategy for improving student engagement and performance — especially as they begin to understand that teaching at students is not enough to ensure that all students have the opportunity to thrive and be successful. BPS uses social and emotional learning to address the challenging home lives of its students, of whom one out of every three lives in poverty and one in five is chronically absent. Without SEL interventions, BPS staff report, those conditions would be significantly more difficult for students to overcome.

And Bridgeport is not alone. The three districts on which our report focuses — and many others — including those in Cleveland, Chicago, Nashville, Oakland, and Washoe County — are intentionally investing in and implementing strategies aimed at helping students develop the social and emotional skills required for success. There is in fact unprecedented momentum building in support of SEL from educators, administrators, and funders across the country.

"The concepts of helping kids work better collaboratively, helping kids build positive relationships that are productive — those aren't new concepts," says the Sacramento Unified Public School District's Gabe Ross. "What's new is being explicit and a system-wide approach that is equitable no matter where you go to school."

Social and Emotional Learning: Why Students Need It and What School Districts Are Doing About It provides an opportunity for practitioners, funders, and advocates to step more fully into this work. Whether it's a school district that wants to implement SEL in its schools, or a foundation looking to deepen its investments in education, youth development, and restorative justice, there has never been more learning about and momentum behind SEL.

The districts chronicled in the report are demonstrating that a well-rounded education can't be reduced to higher test scores or to churning out students who know how to perform to rigid guidelines. Instead, quality education is about drawing out the capacities, creativity, and confidence of students. And it's about creating space and environments for young people that support all our efforts to teach them the knowledge and skills they need to forge successful and positive relationships in school, their private lives, and the future.

Headshot_jennifer_buffett_novoAcross the country, school leaders are showing us that such an approach is not only important — it's possible. Now more than ever, it's time we learn from their example.

Jennifer Buffett is co-president of NoVo Foundation with her husband, Peter.

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