Setting the Stage for Success: Social-Emotional Learning Promotes Healthy Attitudes and Academic Achievement

By Fink, Jennifer | District Administration, November 2016 | Go to article overview

Setting the Stage for Success: Social-Emotional Learning Promotes Healthy Attitudes and Academic Achievement


Fink, Jennifer, District Administration


A focus on teaching social-emotional skills--persistence, resilience, communication and other noncognitive abilities--has led to an obvious jump in reading and math scores in Nevada's Washoe County School District.

Washoe's students are now "less likely to be suspended, more likely to attend school, and they graduate at a much higher rate than students who didn't have those competencies," says Laura Davidson, the district's director of research and evaluation. And those improvements hold true for students from families of diverse economic status.

Four years ago, the 65,000-student school system joined a national initiative led by the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL) to enhance social-emotional instruction. Washoe County has since integrated social-emotional instruction into its academic curriculum and created a unique competencies assessment.

Educators across the country have, like Washoe, boosted student performance by weaving social-emotional lessons--such as regulating emotion, accepting mistakes and coping with stress--into everyday instruction.

Life skills

According to CASEL, "social and emotional learning involves the processes 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."

Educators have always nurtured such skills in children, but pressure to demonstrate academic achievement still causes many schools to focus most instructional time on core academics. But as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has pointed out, the skills people need to survive and thrive now include knowing how to interact with others, communicate, think critically and innovate.

"Technology means that a whole lot of what our kids used to learn--and still learn--is really accessible by computer," says Thomas Hoerr, author of The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs. "What we need to do is teach them skills that will be important in life, not just on a standardized test."

Schools throughout the country are now doing just that, using a variety of interventions, from pre-packaged social-emotional curricula (with lessons delivered by counselors or classroom teachers) to comprehensive, districtwide initiatives that integrate social-emotional learning with academic lessons and community service. These interventions are designed to help students manage strong emotions, control impulses, respect others, make responsible decisions and problem-solve.

Build your own program

Here are four steps that some educators say lead to successful SEL programs:

1. Change in climate and culture.

"In order for social-emotional learning to happen, you have to change everybody's mindset," says John Carver, superintendent of Howard-Winnishiek Community School District in Iowa.

Strong district leadership sets the tone and expectation. "My first year here in the district, I modeled growth mindset and positive thinking," says Carver, now in his fourth year at Howard-Winnishiek. "Part of the reason I did that is to inspire other people."

The next year, the district began embedding social-emotional learning into the curriculum. In math class, for instance, teachers accept student mistakes and explicitly encourage kids to move beyond thinking, "I'm no good at math" to "I've solved other problems before. I can learn to do this too."

The district also hired a school social worker as a resource for students who need more intensive support. Therese Jorgenson, director of student services, spent much of the year leading professional development sessions in Social-emotional learning for educators at all levels. …

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