Student Well-Being Opinion

To Address the ‘Whole Child,’ States Begin ‘A Conversation Worth Having’

By Contributing Blogger — December 12, 2017 3 min read
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This post is by Bryant O. Best, a Program Associate for the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Contact him on Twitter and Instagram @educator_x

I learned a lot growing up in Wilson, North Carolina. It was a small, tight-knit community, one where most families have lived for generations. It’s the kind of place where people know their neighbors by name and local businesses are kept alive by their faithful clientele. From the schoolhouse to the church house and all around, it was clear that the community’s #1 currency was conversation. At the barbershop, I learned about things like the value of a dollar. On the football field, I experienced the fulfillment gained from giving to something greater than yourself. Most importantly, from my mother, I learned the meaning of a quality education.

But for all the many conversations I heard as a child, there was one that I now realize was missing. One conversation that we never really had, either because we were afraid to or we just didn’t know how to have it. And that lack of conversation, both then and now, is killing us.

That conversation is about mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in the U.S. increased a ghastly 24% between 1999 and 2014. Some of the biggest increases in suicide were seen in girls between the ages of 10 and 14 and people of color. For Native Americans as young as 10 and Blacks between the ages of 15 and 24, suicide is now the second and third leading cause of death, respectively. These sobering statistics speak volumes about the hardship young people, particularly those from historically underserved communities, face in our country.

While people disagree on the reasons why this tragic truth exists, one thing that can’t be denied is the impact a nurturing school climate and classroom can have on a child’s life. If founding sociologist Emile Durkheim is correct in that social integration - connectedness to others - is key to preventing suicide, then surely providing public schools with the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and mental health services to support students is a conversation worth having.

That conversation is just beginning among the nation’s policymakers and state chiefs. In a recent paper, Leading for Equity, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program highlighted 10 commitments for action that state education agency leaders can pursue to ensure an equitable education for our nation’s children. This resource, widely endorsed by state chiefs across the country, argues that a key component to advancing equity in education depends on our ability to create systems, school climates, and support services that meet the SEL needs of all children.

At the Innovation Lab Network (ILN) at CCSSO, we are doubling down on that commitment by bringing together 10 state education agencies (SEAs) to answer three critical questions regarding SEL and educational equity:

  1. How can SEAs collaborate with districts and schools to communicate the need for personalized, “whole child” approaches to students, families, and local communities?
  2. How can SEAs facilitate partnerships between government agencies, nonprofits and schools to address both academic and nonacademic student needs?
  3. How can SEAs support and scale pathways that meet the needs of traditionally underserved students, are data-driven, and informed by local community members?

This work builds upon years of supporting states in the ILN to build and scale Deeper Learning (DL). In the ILN, we believe that DL competencies, such as developing an “academic mindset,” engaging in self-directed learning, and being able to effectively communicate are necessary for students to have rich academic experiences and prepare for college, career, and life. Our goal is to elevate statewide support for whole child approaches, which is why, as an example, we are partnering with the California Department of Education to host a free, virtual, student-centered learning symposium on December 15th. It is our hope that our focus on SEL, in addition to our forthcoming resources that outline specific ways personalized learning policy and practice can better support traditionally underserved students, will help SEAs transform public education for the better.

Whether you live in a small, rural town like Wilson or a bustling, booming city like Washington, D.C., one thing remains: it takes a village to raise a child. Everyone doing their part to support the academic and social-emotional needs of every student. That can’t happen without conversation. At CCSSO, we think that it’s a conversation well worth having. Wouldn’t you agree?

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.