Examining the Aspen Institute’s New SEAD Action Guide

high school counselor

While coverage of the topic of social and emotional learning is more widespread than ever, the absence of easy-to-understand, actionable, and evidence-based methods for enacting a whole child agenda into schools presents a crucial gap in the research literature. Even non-research-based, publicly available “best practices” playbooks from consultancies are few and far between.

Back in March, the Aspen Institute and its partners released a new publication, titled: Integrating Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD): An Action Guide for School Leadership Teams. Co-developed with experts from the University of Chicago, Dana Center at UT-Austin, Education Resource Strategies, and Education first (along with practitioners from Minneapolis and Nashville public schools), the guide is marketed to principals and school leadership as providing “practical advice, curated resources, and action steps for school leaders to improve the student experience” through an equity lens. It seeks to advance the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program‘s mission to help leaders in education better understand how social and emotional learning can improve (and enhance) academic performance while advising on how to integrate social-emotional learning competencies into every aspect of school.

The guide itself is divided into five sections, focusing on student success, the student learning experience, adult learning, school climate and resource allocation.

After reviewing the full report, we broke down our key takeaways and top questions for future discussion.

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 The Aspen Institute’s view — with which we agree — is that integrating social, emotional, and academic development into schools requires rethinking the entire school experience for students and adults. In order to weave SEL into the daily student and educator experience, it is necessary to:

  1. Include explicit instruction in understanding and applying social-emotional competencies;
  2. Embed opportunities to practice these skills during academic instruction, and;
  3. Create a learning environment that is infused with healthy relationships and models safety, belonging and purpose.
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Source: The Aspen Institute

One overarching theme of this report is around the importance of student voice. Creating effective social-emotional learning initiatives requires more than just a group of administrators brainstorming ideas in isolation. Actively listening to students, soliciting their input and feedback, and — ultimately — crafting student-centric programs help differentiate inauthentic and one-size-fits-all implementations of SEL versus truly personalized and impactful ones.

Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich, Massachusetts, serves as a case study for how powerful student-centric SEL programming can be. Principal Bill Burkhead (who was chosen as 2018 Massachusetts High School Principal of the Year) emphasizes an inclusive culture that makes the high school feel like “a home away from home” for its students, and all of their most successful social-emotional initiatives were driven by student-led grassroots efforts. (In the three years since Burkhead and his students began introducing these programs, graduation rates have increased over 12%, with similar growth across standardized testing and AP test participation/scores.)

The other common thread throughout the report is that school leadership needs to take action in smarter, more strategic ways. There are so many different routes that districts could take to get started with (or iterate on) SEL programming, but it is easy to get stuck in analysis-paralysis mode if leaders are not evaluating and prioritizing which specific actions will result in the highest level of positive impact (for both students as well as adults) based on a school’s context, history and current situation.

There is credible, easy-to-understand research behind this guide’s recommendations. Each section includes several citations regarding what researchers say about the specific topic (e.g., research about the student learning experience). Over the past two years, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on SEAD has published several reports that do a great job of highlighting this research, and the rapidly increasing focus on SEL in K-12 has resulted in a plethora of studies being published in a wide variety of education-related journals. For those looking to win over skeptics or increase the credibility of proposals for social-emotional learning programming, utilizing this research to answer the ROI question (e.g., what is the value of investing in social-emotional learning?) can be a powerful tool.

Any discussion about SEL needs to consider equity. Although the topic of “equity” is certainly trending in the world of education, SEL and equity have (traditionally) been thought of as separate and distinct. However, the Aspen Institute argues that in order to achieve true educational equity, all students deserve access to not just academic rigor and support systems but also rich, personalized opportunities to develop their agency and identity. That is; irrespective of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, tribal status, language, nationality/immigration status, disability, family background, or family income, all students deserve to be exposed to social-emotional learning programs that are deliberately developed through an equity lens.

Each section of the report includes an “Equity Implications” section, which details how high-level research findings can be translated into specific, actionable SEL initiatives that take equity into consideration. For instance: after defining a vision for student success and outlining studies that highlight learning as a social process built on a foundation of connection between students and their peers, classrooms, and teachers, the “Equity Implication” of family engagement is discussed:

“Students and families should be actively engaged in setting the vision for student success and should see their background, values, and culture reflected and affirmed in that vision and in curriculum and learning experiences.”

In our view, the next level of crafting truly meaningful and effective social-emotional learning programming means always evaluating new plans through an equity lens. Whether your school is just starting to consider social-emotional learning curriculum, or you have already been innovating with SEL for several years, it is important to consider equity and think through ways to personalize instruction based on a student’s unique situation.

Are there ways for schools (and districts) to better share learnings, mistakes, and best practices? Having spoken with dozens of principals, superintendents, teachers, SEL District Coordinators and parents, it is clear that there is a major issue that continues to persist in our education system: SEL siloing. In other words: teachers and school leadership do not have an easy way to share what they are doing or to learn from each other. Anecdotally, this is the case even within a school district, let alone across districts or states. Unless a specific school or program is featured in a report or article, it can be quite difficult for educators to find reputable, tested and evidence-based social-emotional learning curriculum that they can both implement themselves as well as discuss with someone who has tried it out and learned from it.

This begs the question whether existing an organizations (such as the Aspen Institute or CASEL) can evolve to tackle this challenge by creating some type of open-access forum, or if this is an opportunity for a new player to move into the space and act as both a networker as well as an amplifier of high-quality social-emotional learning work.

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