Earlier today, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released its final report and recommendations.
The key message of the report, titled: “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” underscores how the surge in policy, research, and district-level programs related to elevating the social, emotional, and academic well-being of children has sparked a widespread movement to educate the whole child:
“Our nation is at a turning point: We now understand that social, emotional, and cognitive development underpin children’s academic learning. This breakthrough understanding about how people learn is fueling a growing movement to educate children as whole people, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.”
The culmination of over two years of input from 200+ scientists, youth and parent groups, policymakers, researchers, and educators, the goal of the report is to “accelerate and strengthen efforts in local communities” through six core recommendations.
After digesting the full report, the executive summary, and the live-streamed public release event, we summarized our key takeaways for you to digest:
Decades of interdisciplinary research demonstrates that social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of learning are deeply linked. Social and emotional skills can be taught, and they grow and change over time based on an individuals’ environment and experiences.
“Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.” Both the hard science as well as public opinion points to the often-overlooked notion that social and emotional competencies are vital when it comes to the education of our children (and our teachers).
“Children require a broad array of skills, attitudes, character traits, and values to succeed in school, careers, and life.” From goal-setting to collaboration to self-awareness to grit to perseverance, it is clear that preparing children for success in life goes beyond simply teaching them about math, history, and science. Children require honesty, responsibility, integrity, and a sense of purpose to prosper. They need to be able to think critically, consider diverse viewpoints, and solve problems.
“Social and emotional capacities are increasingly demanded in the American workplace.” Gone are the days when your GPA and test scores alone landed you a job. In today’s VUCA world, companies need to hire employees who are highly adaptable, can manage stress, and are able to navigate through complex, ambiguous situations without oversight. This puts a premium on the “ability to work in diverse teams, grapple with difficult problems, and adjust to rapid change.”
“The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself.” Integrating the acquisition of social-emotional learning competencies alongside math and English instruction does not detract from the traditional academic work that teachers prioritize; instead, it represents a new method through which instruction can be enhanced.
“Educating the whole student requires rethinking teaching and learning so that academics and students’ social, emotional, and cognitive development are joined not just occasionally, but throughout the day.”
“Educating the whole learner cannot be reduced to a simple set of policies and proposals.” To fully embrace social, emotional, and academic learning is to adopt a new mindset that recognizes the importance of equity, experimentation, and knowledge-sharing when it comes to improving the entire educational system.
“Evidence confirms that supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development benefits all children and relates positively to the traditional measures we care about: attendance, grades, test scores, graduation rates, college and career success, engaged citizenship, and overall well-being.” In supporting the social-emotional development of students, we also must acknowledge that not all students are the same. Thus, we must provide equitable opportunities by “calibrating to each student’s and school’s individual strengths and needs–ensuring that those with greater needs have access to greater resources.” Personalized education to elevate equity.
“When all children and youth possess a full array of these skills, attitudes, and values, they are better equipped to prosper in the classroom, perform in the workplace, and thrive in life, as contributing and productive members of society. By integrating–rather than separating–young people’s social, emotional, and academic development, we position each and every student for success.”
The report goes on to outline six recommendations designed to assist practitioners, individuals, and organizations who support children:
(1) Set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child. This means crafting a vision for children’s social, emotional, and academic development that adds SEL skills and competencies into existing definitions of “success” in school. It also means aligning strategic action plans, budgetary resources, and adult workforce development in support of this new vision. Furthermore, it is crucial that progress is measured and tracked across school and out-of-school settings, with a focus on continuous improvement versus rewards and punishments.
(2) Transform learning settings so they are safe and supportive for all young people. Settings that are physically and emotionally safe must be constructed so that children can create strong bonds with adults. Examples include:
- Class meetings
- Team teaching
- Advisory groups
- Student-led parent-teacher conferences
Furthermore, schoolwide culture should be shifted to better encourage student voice and agency, along with the affirmation of cultural backgrounds of the diverse students that schools serve so all young people and adults feel a sense of belonging and respect for who they are.
(3) Change instruction to teach social, emotional, and cognitive skills; embed these skills in academics and schoolwide practices. Rather than just creating stand-alone programs or lessons addressing social-emotional learning, competencies such as self-awareness, relationship building, collaboration, emotional regulation and critical thinking must be infused into academic content and into all aspects of the school setting (e.g., recess, lunch, extra-curricular activities). The Commission recommends that evidence-based instructional materials, practices, and resources be used to explicitly teach SEL skills.
(4) Build adult expertise in child development. Within the past several years, experts in the field of social-emotional learning have begun to acknowledge that a major shift is needed to better serve our youth; that is, in order to upgrade the social, emotional and cognitive development of children, we must first focus on training adults on how to hone their own SEL skills. Educators and parents must develop understanding and expertise in child development and in the science of learning, and educator preparation must be redesigned to reflect this. We must invest in adults to better enable them to grow and develop our youth.
(5) Align resources and leverage partners in the community to address the whole child. Research demonstrates how important the cultivation of family-school and family-school-community partnerships are in terms of supporting healthy learning and development inside and outside of school. New social-emotional learning curriculum presents districts and educators with an amazing opportunity to engage families and communities and involve them in opportunities to learn and lead.
(6) Forge closer connections between research and practice. New structures and new support are required for researchers and educators to collaborate and work bi-directionally to bridge the divide between scholarly research and what’s actionable in schools and classrooms. The Commission recommends the creation of new research-practice partnerships to generate useful, actionable information for the field. In addition, they call for more data-sharing agreements between schools and other youth-servicing agencies to collaboratively address strengths and challenges associated with implementation. Finally, they detail how new tools and outlets are needed for the strategic dissemination and communication of knowledge and effective strategies to a wider audience. Articles in academic journals are important, but summaries for educators, parents, and administrators that highlight specific applications in practice will spur faster change.