What Makes Social-Emotional Learning So Important?

Four measures that can contribute to developmentally healthy schools
By Linda Darling-Hammond

While educators intrinsically know how important social and emotional well-being is to the welfare of our young people, it is sometimes hard to keep this reality in focus as we deal with the press for school accountability and ever higher standards.

Yet students respond powerfully to being cared about, well known, appreciated and seen for their assets rather than their deficits. When students are motivated and feel a sense of belonging, their learning improves. As the old saying goes, “Students often learn as much for a teacher as they learn from a teacher.”

This was apparent to me from the day I first student taught in the under-resourced summer school at Camden High School in New Jersey, where students who had failed English class the year before dreaded receiving remediation. But these students responded eagerly to opportunities to create poetry and life narratives that revealed their strengths — and were willing to learn grammar, revise their work and sharpen writing skills in the cause of being better understood.

It is why I have championed bringing social and emotional skills into both schools and the teacher education programs where I have worked and why I am co-chairing the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development. The commission has convened educators, governors, business people and community leaders to develop an agenda for the nation — one that can leverage the policies and supports needed to bring this important work to every school and district in the nation.

Social and emotional supports for students in school have frequently been called the “missing link” in education. Decades of research confirm that students’ social, emotional, cognitive and academic development are deeply intertwined and vital for student learning. When we help students to engage productively with one another, understand themselves and how they think, and better handle the stresses and challenges in their lives, we prepare them for success now and in the future.

Robust Benefits Well-implemented programs designed to foster social, emotional and academic development are associated with positive outcomes, ranging from better test scores and higher graduation rates to improved social behavior. Researchers who reviewed 213 programs focused on social, emotional and academic learning found these programs positively affected students’ social competence and behavior. In addition, students experienced, on average, an 11 percentile-point improvement in academic performance. Subsequent studies have found long-term positive effects on academic effort and achievement, as measured in reading, writing and math scores, as well as graduation rates.

School safety, which is a top priority for parents and educators in the wake of school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, is also enhanced by teaching students social and emotional skills and by creating a positive learning environment, including counseling and mental health supports.

When schools put in place an educative and restorative approach to discipline and teach students social and emotional skills, such as how to resolve conflicts and relate well to others, evidence shows that incident rates plummet and schools become safer. This is far preferable to a focus on exclusionary and punitive discipline practices that disrupt students’ academic progress and cause students to become more disconnected, alienated and angry. Just adding metal detectors and security guards is much less effective than teaching students tools they can use to manage their emotions and seek help when needed, as well as to raise and resolve problems.

I have seen this in my own work with high schools over many years. Among the most profound changes were those in a high school in East Palo Alto, Calif., I worked with for many years. Once dubbed the “murder capital” of the U.S., this high-poverty, largely immigrant community experiences significant gang violence, drive-by shootings and drug trafficking. Many of the students also suffer the traumas associated with evictions, homelessness, family incarceration, food insecurity and lack of health care.

When the school first opened with the intention of reducing high school dropout rates for students from the community, there were frequent fights, graffiti and chronic absenteeism. Many students did not engage in school work and were unmoved by threats of failure. They knew how to fail and expected it.

The turnaround occurred as their advisers — who saw a small group of students every day and stayed with them for all four years of high school — made home visits and positive phone calls to parents; created a close-knit community in advisory, as teachers did in classrooms; taught social-emotional awareness and skills, including conflict resolution; involved students in decision making about norms and responsibilities; developed restorative discipline practices and mental health supports; introduced mindfulness; and engaged students in project-based learning and internships focused on improving conditions in the community. Soon, the school became a safe haven with a strong family ethos — with students helping each other keep the campus safe while practicing social and emotional skills. Attendance rates soared and both graduation and college-going rates reached 90 percent.

The school, like so many others, demonstrated that the social and emotional aspects of learning are much more than a frill or an add-on. They are part of the core curriculum.

Four Dimensions For this to happen, school leaders need to pay attention to four things: (1) intentionally designing learning environments that are developmentally healthy places with strong long-term relationships; (2) directly teaching social and emotional learning strategies attuned to meet the needs of students in diverse socioeconomic, racial and ethnic contexts, and designing academic learning to engage these skills; (3) paying attention to the social and emotional learning needs of teachers and school leaders, as well as students; and (4) making it an explicit mission to prepare students to be personally and socially aware, skilled and responsible.

Designing healthy learning environments A positive classroom and school environment is important for students to develop in healthy ways. When schools become a welcoming place for students from a diversity of backgrounds and with a diversity of ideas, and a supportive environment for those who struggle and have gone through trauma, students and teachers feel a sense of trust and belonging that supports effective learning.

A recent study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that principals influence school achievement primarily through changes in the school climate. Strong learning climates are defined as safe, supportive environments with high, consistent and clear expectations for students, both behaviorally and academically.

The study, based on data from hundreds of schools, found that other principal-led school initiatives associated with improving schools — such as teachers’ professional development, program alignment and parent engagement — matter for student achievement to the extent they facilitate a strong school climate. Even among schools that start out with safe climates or high achievement, further improvements in school climate are associated with higher achievement gains.

Schools need to be places where strong relationships can form. Unfortunately, that’s not easy to do in all settings. We still struggle to redesign the factory-model school that we inherited in the early 1900s, in which students are grouped by age and have different teachers every year and, in secondary schools, every class period, providing few opportunities for long-term attachments.

Some school districts are engaged in the hard work of redesigning schools to create smaller environments that are more personalized, where adults and students stay together over periods of time, where teams of teachers and administrators can work with each other around the needs of particular students and where advisory structures enable teachers to know students well.

Increasingly, schools also are reaching out to families and other community institutions that play an essential role in supporting young people’s growth. Including families and out-of-school settings in efforts to ensure students’ healthy development enables learning to occur across contexts.

Creating learning strategies that support social, emotional and academic development Social and emotional skills can be taught with high-quality practices, programs and interventions in both school and out-of-school settings. Indeed, some evidence suggests social and emotional learning skills are open to change over a long period of time, and some skills, such as learning to manage one’s emotions, are building blocks for more complex skills that emerge as children age, such as learning to manage conflicts.

In addition to specific social and emotional learning programs, we need to consider curriculum designs and instructional practices that integrate social and emotional learning with academics. Engaging students in well-designed collaborative work around hard problems gives them a sense of ownership over their own learning. Allowing them to reflect on and revise their work in response to feedback helps them develop a growth mindset. Offering real-world, authentic projects helps them develop executive functioning, resourcefulness and the skills of learning to learn, preparing them for work in the 21st century.

If we think about the ways in which we have to be able to function as adults, we work in groups on problems that need creative solutions and require problem solving. Preparing students to do that work well is part of the major goal of education in the modern era.

Supporting the adults who work with children For social, emotional and academic development to thrive in schools, teachers and administrators themselves need to have emotional resources that allow them to be centered and practice self-care, as well as training and support to understand and model social and emotional skills, behaviors, knowledge and beliefs for students. We need not only to enable teachers to help students get along with one another and develop social and emotional skills, but we need also to support teachers and leaders as social-emotional learners themselves.

Education is a very intense kind of work. Educators must be able to relate well to a variety of students and other adults; manage relationships on an ongoing basis; remain calm in the face of emergencies; and be deliberate in situations that are unpredictable. District administrators who support such adult learning are vital.

Making it an explicit mission More than anything, district and school leaders can be spokespeople and advocates for supporting learning that honors the whole student and for making social, emotional and academic learning an explicit mission of schools. School leaders need to build this vision into what they do and how they talk about education and build it into their strategic plans.

The reward is both helping students be more successful in school and more prepared for the world they’re going into, which requires the kind of learning that’s enabled by social, emotional and cognitive capacities. As adults, we can model for young people what a world would look like in which we work together and are responsive to each other, understand each other and build the kind of community in the outside world that we want to build in our schools. LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education emeritus at Stanford University. Twitter: @ldh_ed

Reprinted with permission from the September 2018 issue of School Administrator magazine, published by AASA, “The School Superintendents Association.”