Student Well-Being Opinion

Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning

By Robert Rothman — November 17, 2015 3 min read
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In 1995, Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence introduced to a broad audience the idea that managing and developing emotions was perhaps more important than intellect (at least as measured by conventional measures like IQ) in individuals’ success in careers and life. Two decades later, the idea of “social and emotional” learning is widespread in education, and schools are looking to ways to add those competencies to their programs.

While the idea is widely accepted, there is some confusion over what the term “social and emotional skills” really means. One commonly used definition, from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), focuses on the development of attitudes and behaviors that enable children and young adults to thrive and work well with others. As their web site states:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Others, meanwhile, use the term to refer to the habits of mind--like grit, persistence, and executive function--that enable young people to persevere through difficulty and achieve academic success. In this blog, David Conley has referred to these competencies as “success skills.”

Still others have focused on addressing the needs of young people who face traumas, particularly those who live in neighborhoods plagued by violence or have experienced traumatic events.

Of course, these three views of social and emotional learning are not mutually exclusive. Students need to manage emotions and deal with traumas in order to persist in their academic work. And abilities such as empathy are important not only as means to the end of academic success; they are important for youths’ development toward adulthood.

In a new book, Belonging and Becoming, Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman provide a detailed look at how five schools have incorporated social and emotional learning into their programs and have achieved great success with their students. The book helps illuminate the concept by showing what it takes to address these abilities and what it means for young people when schools do so. (Kathleen is a regular contributor to this blog.)

The schools profiled in the book address all three conceptions of social emotional learning. In large part, this is because they see their mission as ensuring success for every student and providing the support each student needs. As Tom Mullen, the high school assistant principal at East Side Community School in New York City, tells the authors: “Whatever it takes. When you know students well, you can start tailoring programs that will meet their needs and tap their interests.”

In practice, “whatever it takes” can mean a wide range of approaches. At East Side, for example, the school uses a curriculum that addresses issues of inequity and injustice and focuses on questions of identity and belonging that engage adolescents. At Fenger High School in Chicago, a “turnaround” school that had once been low-performing, the principal has introduced restorative justice to replace punitive suspensions and instill a sense of respect among the students. At Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts, teachers assess students’ academic behaviors--preparedness, participation, revision, and doing homework--in addition to knowledge and skills. At Oakland International School, which is made up of recent immigrants, students are immersed in group projects that enable them to learn both academic content and English simultaneously--as well as a sense of empathy for their peers. And at Quest Early College High School in Humble, Texas, students meet daily in mixed-age advisory groups, called “families,” that provide opportunities for students to make deep connections to their peers and to adults.

These examples are just a few of the ways that the five schools develop students as learners and individuals. And, as Cervone and Cushman write, they have been extraordinarily successful. The schools regularly graduate large numbers of students and send them off to college, in most cases at much higher rates than schools with similar student bodies.

But that is just one measure of what these schools do for students. Nicholas, a ninth grader at Springfield Renaissance Academy, described how his school’s approach, incorporating social-emotional learning, enables him to develop a much broader set of abilities: “It allows you to grow into something bigger than yourself.”

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.