On January 15, 2019, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released its final report regarding the state of social-emotional learning in the United States, along with recommendations for how to proceed into 2019 and beyond with respect to advancing the integration of social, emotional, and cognitive skills both inside and outside of the classroom.
Previous reports published by the Commission focused on the scientific evidence pointing to the importance of social-emotional learning in optimizing student success. This one, however, was much more pointed and focused on what to do. For parents, administrators, practitioners, and educators, the lengthy document can be used as a playbook for strengthening school culture and better supporting our youth as “whole children.” For policymakers and local government agencies, the six recommendations presented by the Commission serve as a signal that imminent and wide-spread change is needed.
Policy and research play key roles in supporting effective practice in classrooms, schools, and communities; therefore, this upcoming legislative session represents an important opportunity for positive and impactful progress to be made. But where should policymakers start?
State standards, guidance, and frameworks can signal to districts and communities the importance of prioritizing the whole child. This aligns under the Commission’s first recommendation: to set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child. As districts work to include social, emotional, and cognitive skills as factors in their student success definitions, local government should adapt standards to reflect a heightened importance placed on these competencies.
Providing equitable access to high-quality learning environments for all students through funding and technical assistance can be accomplished through the flexible use of existing resources (e.g., allocation of staff, time, and facilities) in order to support children and encourage the integration of community partners into the school environment. Furthermore, government can hold schools, districts, and youth-serving organizations accountable for improvements in the quality of the learning environment as part of various accountability systems, but with a focus on continuous improvement. Family-school and family-school-community partnerships are rarely mentioned in discussions about social-emotional learning, but decades of research points to the importance of a safe and supportive environment for enhancing student success outcomes.
Restructuring the regulations that govern the adult workforce to hire, retain, pay and promote individuals with the skills and knowledge to develop students across social, emotional, and academic realms allows for incentives to innovate within educator preparation programs as well as iterations to the rules surrounding educator licensure. Bottom line: we need to be developing teachers who can support social, emotional, and academic learning.
Ensuring resources are invested wisely and distributed equitably to create qualified educators, reasonable class sizes, strong ratios of counselors and other support staff to students, and adequate health and mental health services. Policy leaders should evaluate the adequacy of resources in each community in relation to student needs as a basis for making investments. They can allow states, districts, and schools to blend and braid school and other child-serving resources on behalf of children.
Finally, helping to deepen connections between research and practice through funding and priority setting. The federal government has (historically) been instrumental in advancing research through funding; it must continue to do so both within and across agencies to continue to encourage innovation in the field of SEL. More cross-sector research investments — specifically, those that incentivize vertical, collaborative, multidisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners — should be encouraged. Research needs to be translated to inform state-level policy and district-level action.