What would it take to weave social and emotional learning (SEL) into the daily fabric of our nation’s schools? What distinct practices, programs, and structures help schools embed SEL into ongoing teaching and learning?
Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman, co-founders of the nonprofit organization What Kids Can Do (WKCD) and its research arm, the Center for Youth Voice in Policy and Practice, asked these questions and others. The interviewed and observed students and faculty at five schools whose design linked academic, social and emotional learning. Their report, “Learning by Heart: The Power of Social-Emotional Learning in Secondary Schools,” identifies key elements that gave social and emotional learning potency:
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.
A sense of community helping students feel they belong. 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, decision making, self-regulation). In classroom discussions, there was an emphasis on participation, and zero tolerance for exclusion.
Constructive alternatives to destructive disciplinary policies, including peer mediation or juries and peace circles, and restorative practices that met students’ basic needs for food, shelter, health, and safety.
Project-based learning and student choice link serious scholarship to what students cared about. Observed practices included reading across the curriculum connecting to life’s lessons, students as teachers, and service learning.
According to the report, beyond closing the achievement gap at at-risk schools, the convergence of academic, social, and emotional learning serves all students well. It enriches student learning, aspiration, and engagement across the entire spectrum of students.