Education Opinion

3+1 Reasons to Make Social, Emotional, and Academic Development a Priority

By Ross Wiener — May 03, 2018 4 min read
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Over the coming months, this blog will focus on how people learn. In particular, how to improve student learning (and life) outcomes through an integrated approach to students’ social, emotional, and academic development. We hope this will be a forum for learning―a space to highlight promising practices, share new insights and ideas, raise important questions, and elevate diverse perspectives.

I’ll be a regular contributor to this blog, starting with why I think this is work is so important and urgent.

For me, there are three main arguments for taking an integrated approach to students’ social, emotional, and academic development: (1) improving academic achievement; (2) preparing students to succeed in the world of work; and (3) addressing the civic mission of schools. Social and emotional competencies are instrumental to student success in each of these domains.

Achieving academic learning goals: An overwhelming majority of states have raised their college-and-career-readiness standards in English-language arts, math, and science. By their own terms, these standards call on schools to intentionally develop social and emotional skills, such as giving and receiving critical feedback; working on teams and with diverse groups to solve problems; persevering through challenges; and adapting communications to context and audience.

These are just a few examples from many, with the clear upshot that standards don’t speak exclusively to academic content knowledge. Preparing students to use knowledge in practical ways, which the standards are intended to do, requires teaching and developing social and emotional competencies as part of how school happens. Some curricula expertly weave social and emotional development into academic instruction, but much more R&D is needed to make this intentional integration more common.

Succeeding in the world of work: The National Bureau of Economic Research finds that jobs that are growing in numbers and wages are jobs that require interpersonal skills in addition to technical knowledge. The top three sought-after skills in prospective employees are the ability to work on a team, to communicate with diverse audiences, and strong problem-solving skills. Yes, you still need technical knowledge, but the Commission has heard from business leaders that it’s the adaptive social and relational skills that are hardest to find and train for. This is why the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution included social-emotional learning as one of four primary strategies for education to lead to more economic mobility. With reinvestment in career-technical education on the rise, a golden opportunity exists to integrate an intentional approach to developing social and emotional competencies that are valuable in the labor market.

Preparing for citizenship and civic engagement: Public education in America has in its founding DNA Jefferson’s construction that a people who are uneducated never have been free and never will be. Education is vital to democracy, both in terms of teaching Americans about their Constitution and government, and in preparing students to participate in democratic decision-making: to have civil debates, engage respectfully with difference, and honor democratic decisions that don’t go their way. Developing students as citizens relies on―and creates a context for further strengthening―healthy social and emotional development.

This last reason closely relates to another important rationale for integrating social and emotional development with academics: character and moral development. Schools are places where young people develop an understanding of who they are and how they relate to others and society at large, and where they practice values like respect and kindness. Teaching these values happens all the time through school culture (what gets talked about and celebrated), through example (what students see modeled by adults), and (only sometimes) through explicit instruction. We can approach this intentionally and support schools in playing this role well, or we can leave it to chance.

Schools can’t and should never try to displace the critical roles of family, faith, and community in character, social, and emotional development more generally―but schools have a critical role to play, and an integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development creates a context for honoring this role and playing it well. This brings up a dilemma that will appear often in this blog: who should make what decisions? What should be in policy, what should be decided at the school district or network level, and what should be left for local school communities to decide? The imperative to act on this agenda does not answer some of the toughest questions.

Answering these tough questions will require all of us to roll up our sleeves and push in. It’s time for observers who see the value in teaching young people these skills but have critiqued implementation efforts from the sidelines to actively support schools and communities in this work. It’s time for skeptics to wake up to the fact that this integrated approach to learning is crucial for preparing our students for success in school, in work, and in life--and critical to the health of our pluralistic democracy. And it’s time for all of us to start creating the conditions that will allow this work to flourish in local communities, instead of viewing it as a nice-to-have for those places with the leadership and wherewithal to make it happen.

Over the coming months, we’ll explore lots of issues, challenges, and opportunities. Starting with my “why” is a way of grounding these discussions and debates in underlying purpose. Let us know your “why” and what’s on your mind―submit a blog proposal here!

Photo courtesy of Ross Wiener

The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.