Opinion
Early Childhood Commentary

What School Is All About

By Valerie Maholmes — October 23, 2002 7 min read
Restoring the heart and soul of education.

Here is a true story I heard recently that brings together pieces of the educational puzzle that are, to my mind, essential to understanding how schools may have gotten off track in their mission to help all students grow and learn, and how they can right themselves again.

After being expelled, 15-year-old Jeremy and his family searched for and finally found a new school that seemed appropriate. Two months later, Jeremy’s disruptive behavior at the new school precipitated a comprehensive evaluation that led to his receiving out-of-district services, including psychological services. His parents, unable and unwilling to pay for these services, sued the school district, contending that officials should have known that emotional concerns were at the heart of Jeremy’s problems. The district maintained that if it had to pay anything, it should only be the educational costs. During the legal proceedings, the judge concluded that whether or not the district was negligent, the emotional and educational issues were so interrelated that there was no way to determine whether Jeremy would be better served if only educational or psychological services were provided. Therefore, in order for Jeremy to be successful, the district would be responsible for the educational costs, and for costs associated with the emotional treatment as well.

As I listened to this story, I was intrigued by the judge’s clear and irrefutable message to the district officials: Education and social- emotional development are inextricably linked. His charge to the district underscored the important message that is generally missing in the discourse on education and education reform. School success and social-emotional development are linked in such a way that it is virtually impossible to isolate the effects of either on children’s educational outcomes.

Over the past decade, the discourse on education reform has primarily centered on the establishment of standards and standards-based assessments to narrow performance gaps between groups of students and to ensure that all students have the opportunity to experience a challenging and rigorous curriculum. Through a variety of methods, school officials, teachers, and, in some cases, even students would be held accountable for meeting these standards. While accountability efforts hold the promise of improving the practice of education, to date the efforts have fallen short of the mark of improving the quality of the educational experiences. After nearly a decade, the accountability movement has yielded mixed results with respect to the impact of standards on educational outcomes. On the one hand, the movement has brought much-needed resources to schools in impoverished settings and has fostered a “laser-like focus” on important academic subjects. But, on the other hand, in doing these things, the heart and soul of what education is all about has been lost.

Educating children involves much more than imparting knowledge in discrete subject areas.

Educating children involves much more than imparting knowledge in discrete subject areas. It encompasses a wide range of tasks, experiences, and interactions that extend beyond the emphasis on academic content. It includes attention to other areas of development—the social, emotional, and personal— that go hand in hand with academic learning. Thus, healthy development is essential to learning. Students thrive academically when there is support for their development as human beings. Young children whose teachers encourage exploration, take care to explain what they are doing, listen to them, and tailor the classroom environment to the children’s abilities and interests tend to be more successful academically.

Likewise, adolescents thrive in school when their social and emotional needs are met. According to a study by Cheryl L. Somers and Traci J. Gizzi, reported in the Spring 2001 issue of the journal Adolescent & Family Health, adolescents’ feelings of attachment to school are related to levels of school engagement, including persistent effort in schoolwork, as well as increased academic motivation and interest. Student identification with school is related to attendance, preparedness for class, disciplined behavior, and attentiveness in class. Students perform better academically if they feel an attachment to teachers, and when the curriculum is relevant to their lives, issues, and concerns.

In contrast, truancy, absenteeism, and eventual withdrawal from school have been found to be associated with lack of belonging to school and not valuing school. This is of particular concern for at-risk students, who often demonstrate behaviors that include poor attendance, a low value toward schoolwork, and a lack of participation, effort, motivation, and expectations for success. For these students, membership and sense of belonging to school are crucial to avoiding their dropping out.

Understandably, we focus attention primarily on the academic tasks of schooling, in part because they are the most tangible and easily measurable. Without question, this is important. But the social-emotional correlates are the foundation upon which the academic tasks of schooling can thrive. Children are in school for the most critical, sensitive, and impressionable period of their lives, and they depend on educators to find ways to ignite their curiosity, to inspire, and to motivate them to be all that they can be—not just as a student, but as a person. Thus, schools are more than bricks and mortar; classroom practice involves more than paper-and-pencil tasks.

Schools need to provide a holistic approach to education.

Schools need to provide a holistic approach to education to foster in children the qualities of heart and mind that are so important for success in school and in later life. While significant steps have been taken to set high academic standards and hold schools accountable for reaching those standards, bold steps must now be taken to provide opportunities for ensuring that the other critical aspects of schooling are held to the same high standards. First, we must:

  • Acknowledge the importance of both. It is time for the educational community to acknowledge that social-emotional development and academic standards are not irreconcilable—both need to be addressed to achieve the desired academic outcomes. Teachers know this intuitively. No matter how compelling the curriculum, or how aligned the instruction with assessment, if the attention to social-emotional development is lacking, the expected outcomes are difficult to achieve.

  • Set standards for social-emotional development and hold them equal to those for cognitive development. For the same reasons that the judge in my earlier story noted that Jeremy’s emotional and educational needs were so interconnected that it was difficult to determine cause and effect, standards for development need to be established and held to a level of importance equal to academic or cognitive development. Some effort has already been made in this area by such researchers as James P. Comer, Howard Gardner, and Robert J. Sternberg, who have each identified specific developmental indicators that are foundational to academic learning.

  • Start early. The qualities of heart and mind that are so central to academic achievement and success as a member of the learning community must be instilled in children from the earliest ages and nurtured throughout their school experience. The early- childhood-education community has taken the lead in establishing standards for child development and school readiness. Its practitioners have identified the important qualities that need to be fostered in children and have set forth practices that should be followed even when children reach the age of formal schooling. These practices need to be adapted to the needs of students at each phase of development and continued throughout the educational experience.
The educational community much acknowledge that social-emotional development and academic standards are not irreconcilable.

  • Conduct and disseminate research. Healthy development in the social and emotional domains has already been linked to academic success. Yet in some districts, schools have shortened or have completely done away with important programs that promote development, in an effort to increase instructional time and improve learning outcomes. More research that examines the impact of social-emotional and overall development on educational outcomes needs to be conducted and disseminated.

What would be gained by broadening the educational focus, so that it includes both academic and developmental outcomes? First and foremost, we would recapture the heart and soul of education so that all children would have the opportunity to be successful in school and in life. In doing so, businesses would have what they have been asking for: a skilled workforce capable of solving problems and meeting the changing demands of business and industry. Taxpayers would have what is most important to them: an increase in the value of their homes and communities, and fewer tax dollars spent on the juvenile-justice system. Most importantly, America would have what it needs: responsible and productive citizens to maintain the country’s place as a leader in a global society.

Valerie Maholmes is the Irving B. Harris assistant professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, where she is the director of policy for the Comer School Development Program at the Yale Child Study Center. She also serves on the New Haven, Conn., board of education.

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