Student Well-Being Opinion

Integrating Social-Emotional Learning Into High School

By Barbara Cervone & Kathleen Cushman — May 20, 2014 6 min read
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“At this school, they go all out around the student’s emotions,” Jameisha, a 12th grader, told us. “They ask, they listen. I don’t wake up and think, ‘Oh I hope this don’t happen.’ I think, ‘I’m OK. I’m fine. I’m ready to learn.’”

At Jameisha’s South Side Chicago high school, a full-on commitment to social and emotional learning, or SEL, has transformed the environment from a nightmare of urban violence to a place where students dream of college. And although the circumstances and challenges may differ at other public secondary schools, around the nation we are seeing a new recognition that social and emotional factors markedly affect academic engagement, achievement, and educational attainment in the adolescent years.

What would it take to weave social and emotional learning into the daily fabric of our nation’s high schools? What distinct practices, programs, and structures help schools embed SEL into ongoing teaching and learning? How does this effort vary from school to school, in response to the conditions that make a school unique and shape its climate?

From 2013 through early 2014, we asked these and other questions as part of an in-depth investigation of social-emotional learning in five diverse high schools located in communities across the United States. Most SEL efforts take place in the elementary grades, and most of the research to date has focused on discrete programs within schools. We know far less about secondary schools that make social-emotional learning central to their mission, linking it inextricably to academic development.


Still, the dichotomy between “noncognitive” and “cognitive” factors in learning is clearly giving way to a more capacious view that appreciates the complex interplay between the two. (Witness recent back-to-back Commentaries by David Conley and Mike Rose on this topic.) Angela Duckworth’s talk of “grit” lends muscle to the “soft” qualities traditionally attributed to character skills. And long-overdue attention to the deleterious effects of zero-tolerance policies has recently elevated another strand of SEL: replacing punitive discipline with restorative practices that heal rather than harm.

The schools in our study were working on all of these fronts. With four of them, academic and social-emotional learning had entwined in their DNA from the start, although their designs and the students they served were decidedly distinct. All four reported academic results that stood out compared with those of schools with similar demographics: strong attendance and low dropout rates, good proficiency results on state assessments, a high percentage of students going on to college. The fifth school, Chicago’s Fenger Academy High School, embraced SEL as a strategy for turning around years of poor performance and unremitting school violence. There, restorative practices took center stage.

We presented five case studies on the different high schools and SEL in a report released earlier this year, “Learning by Heart: The Power of Social-Emotional Learning in Secondary Schools.” We received support for our work from the NoVo Foundation. (NoVo also helps support Education Week’s coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement.)

Regardless of the design or approach, we identified a handful of key elements that all our study schools shared.

Although none enrolled more than 600 students, in each school a web of structural supports ensured that adults could know students well and support their development. These supports included advisory periods that gave every student a home base; prioritization of strong and purposeful teacher-student relationships; design and structural choices that kept class sizes small; formal assessment systems that focused on support, not censure; and grade-level and subject-area meetings that created a professional-learning community among faculty members.

We need new language that ends the ‘versus’ between cognitive and noncognitive factors in our discussions of learning and mastery.”

These schools intentionally cultivated a sense of community through shared norms, values, and language. Transition programs welcomed incoming students; rituals and assemblies brought students and faculty together for recognition and problem-solving. A focus on acceptance of differences, inclusive practices, and the habit of reflection seemed to develop a sense of belonging and agency among students in each school. Students had ample opportunities to learn and practice core social skills (e.g., apologies, decisionmaking, self-regulation). Everywhere we observed protocols for thoughtful classroom discussion, an emphasis on participation, and zero tolerance for exclusion.

We saw our study schools forging constructive alternatives to destructive disciplinary policies, including peer mediation or juries and peace circles. Yet they also demonstrated other powerful restorative practices that did not bear that name—by meeting students’ basic needs for food, shelter, health, and safety.

Student motivation and academic standardization often stand off like rivals, yet our study schools found ways to link serious scholarship to what students cared about. Among the many practices we observed were project-based learning, student choice, reading across the curriculum that connected to life’s lessons, students as teachers, and service learning. Each of our study schools also trained its sights on students’ developing the beliefs and habits that result in satisfying and productive lives and learning—beyond school.

What are the policy implications of what these schools have shown us?

See Also

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To start, we need new language that ends the “versus” between cognitive and noncognitive factors in our discussions of learning and mastery. Academic, social, and emotional learning are deeply mutual. In turn, we need learning standards that treat SEL as integral to the curriculum; Illinois, for example, includes standards for SEL development in its state learning standards. And the complex business of taking stock of student gains in SEL offers one more argument for performance-based assessments.

Our investigation underscores the critical role that supporting structures and practices play in secondary schools: advisory groups, student choice, norms of mutual respect among youths and adults, intentional and inclusive community-building, and more. Evidence-based SEL programs participate in that ecology, we acknowledge, but their potential increases when schools integrate them into daily instruction in a systemic approach.

The convergence of academic, social, and emotional learning serves all students well, we found. It misses the point to embrace SEL largely as a behavior-management or character-development tool for at-risk students in urban schools, though certainly such programs play a part in closing the achievement gap. Our five study schools demonstrate the power of SEL to enrich student learning, aspiration, and engagement across the entire spectrum of students.

We applaud the rising interest in restorative-justice programs as an alternative to harmful zero-tolerance policies. Yet the students affected by them often need much more than the chance to right their wrongs and stay in school, however critical these outcomes are. They usually need help managing the chronic stressors that underlie their defiance—worries linked to family, health (mental and physical), safety, and sometimes food and shelter, too. Though cognizant of the limits of what schools can do, we also know the exorbitant costs of the consequences of neglect and school failure.

Finally (though perhaps first of all), teacher-preparation programs must equip new teachers with the core competencies necessary to foster social and emotional learning. They need guidance in creating the safe, respectful, motivating, and engaging classrooms in which young minds and characters can develop. It goes without saying that embedding those same characteristics in their professional education would lay a strong foundation for their success.

The vision of weaving social and emotional learning into the daily fabric of our nation’s high schools seems understandably daunting. We offer five proof points that it can actually happen.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Putting Heart Into High School Embracing Social-Emotional Learning


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