In these extraordinary times, we need schools that prioritize the whole child.
I have two daughters – ages 12 and 9. Both attend our neighborhood K-8 public school, an easy five-minute walk from our home. Like many working parents with school-age children, my spouse and I juggled our work and parenting responsibilities in pre-COVID times to make sure we spent quality time with our children, provide support with math homework and longer-term projects, and support their participation in enrichment and extracurricular activities. Sometimes math homework sessions ended in tearful or rage-filled meltdowns, and at other times, perfectly decent drafts of writing projects ended up as torn or crumpled pages thrown across the room. On the flip side, one of my daughters exuberantly and proudly shares her creations in a game simulation, and the other eagerly accepted swim lessons after years of rejecting them so she could keep up with her friends at pool parties. If any of this sounds familiar, you are in good company. Based on my experiences as a parent, educator, and researcher, I have come to understand a singular truth about learning – that ALL learning is social-emotional learning.
Recall a time when you struggled to learn something new at some point in your life. What emotions did you feel in your struggle? What factors helped you persist in the learning process? I recall shedding tears over long division in third grade, lacking confidence to contribute to class discussions, and anxiety over a lifetime of failed swim lessons. Sometimes, all I needed was a friend to show me how they worked a problem, an invitation from a teacher to share my ideas, or an opportunity to practice the skill again and again. Thinking about those times, it is clear to me that there is a social-emotional component to all aspects of learning. Over the last two decades, researchers have documented the critical role that social-emotional factors play in student outcomes such as grades, school persistence, and test scores (Durlak, et.al., 2011; Greenberg, et.al., 2003; Sklad, et.al., 2012; Taylor, et., al, 2017). Encouragingly, in recent years, there has also been a growing awareness of the importance and value of students’ well-being (the Stanford Prevention Research Center (2019) defines well-being as “a holistic synthesis of a person’s biological, psychological, and spiritual experiences, resulting from interplay between individuals and their social, economic, and physical environments that promotes living a fulfilling life.”) and “whole-child development” (see Turnaround for Children’s Building Blocks for Learning for another whole-child framework) as a valued goal in and of itself.
From 2016-19, I had the opportunity to direct a research study with a team at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, & Equity (SCALE) and ELP called “Measures of Social-Emotional Learning,” a project supported by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stuart Foundation, to explore the possibility of developing credible, instructionally-embedded sources of evidence about students’ SEL development that can be used to inform students’ and teachers’ next steps. We wanted to go beyond traditional pupil survey instruments that, in many cases, do not provide timely and immediately actionable information about specific students (there are a couple exceptions: the Co-Pilot/Elevate program developed by PERTS (Project for Education Research that Scales) engages students in multiple short-cycle administrations of a brief survey that provides targeted, disaggregated information to teachers and can be used to inform immediate next steps; Project Co-Vitality allows for tracking individual pupil responses over time. Both instruments are proprietary and require registration with their programs), to explore authentic sources of evidence in contexts where students actually apply social-emotional practices in the course of engaging with academic content. This study was completed in partnership with teachers in student-centered learning contexts where students were engaged in project-based learning and exhibitions/defenses of learning. The Executive Summary provides an overview of our findings.
The findings from that study have strongly influenced my understanding of the importance of whole-child development, the integration of social-emotional learning in all aspects of learning in school, and the learning environments that are necessary for students to develop as self-directed learners with ownership of their learning and agency over their lives. Teachers, families, and other adults in the school community play a critical role in shaping the learning environments and conditions that nurture students’ SEL development. These learning environments shape whether students feel empowered to make choices in their learning and whether student voices are honored and heard. A culture of mutual respect, support, and safety among students is needed to empower student voice and choice. If students are to have ownership and agency in their learning, they need a low-stakes “trial and error” culture where they feel safe not getting things right on their first, second, or even third attempt, where academic and creative risk-taking is applauded, and grading policies value growth and effort over initial success. A culture that values growth also provides regular opportunities to receive constructive feedback from peers and teachers, and supports students to act on that feedback. Through the study, our team came to understand that all teachers, not just counselors and advisory teachers, need to be equipped to understand the social-emotional well-being of their students and the role that all teachers play in creating the learning environments that support students’ SEL.
During the research project, based on evidence of how well teacher-developed measures of SEL worked for students, the research team authored a framework that describes opportunities for developing and demonstrating social-emotional learning in the context of PBL and Exhibitions of Learning. The framework proposes a set of design principles for credible and valid measures of SEL:
Authentic audience and purpose
Student-centered (supporting choice and ownership)
Socially constructed or mediated
Learning context demands demonstration of SEL practices
Ongoing, repeated, varied, multi-faceted
Produces actionable evidence
One key learning from the study was that students need an authentic purpose and audience for engaging with measures of SEL – this is similar to the way authentic performance assessments can spark and sustain student motivation and more validly measure a complex skill. For example, when students reflect on their own and their peers’ “team mindset” skills in the context of completing a joint project, the feedback they give each other and their own reflections on how they contributed to the project are more meaningful, honest, and valid than completing survey items on their collaboration skills without a specific context. Another key learning is that measures that engage students in socially constructed or peer-mediated sense-making (e.g., those in which students have opportunities to share learning goals with a buddy, discuss evidence of their progress on those goals, set new goals, and hold each other accountable) were seen as the most authentic and valid SEL measures by students and teachers. This is the “social” in social-emotional learning. Most students learn and perform best when they have opportunities to engage with others (whether peers, teachers, or mentors) in authentic discussions, collaborative projects, or when receiving feedback and coaching. This allows them to process complex ideas through conversation, build and validate their understandings, make meaning of common experiences, and refine their own ideas. The interactions students have with others in the process of learning something new is not just a “nice to have” – it is an essential component of the learning process.
The need for teachers to become better equipped to nurture their students’ SEL (and by extension, attend to their own social-emotional well-being) has been amplified by a range of crises and challenges over the last two decades — a rise in school shootings, growing awareness of the harms of in-person and cyberbullying, unnecessary use of police force in schools and disproportionate over-application of disciplinary action and criminalization of Black and brown students, increasing poverty and homelessness, children in foster care, a national opioid epidemic, the plight of undocumented immigrants living in constant fear of ICE, and the marginalization of LGBTQIA+ students, to name a few challenges to well-being that children in American schools currently face.
During the global COVID-19 pandemic crisis, it has become even clearer that we need to attend to the social-emotional needs of children as well as the adults that mentor them to create safe learning conditions that shape how students will be able to cope with the health crisis and a world where threats to their very existence feel more real than ever. The pandemic crisis and distance learning pulled back the curtains on deep systemic inequities in the ways students from Black, brown, and other marginalized communities have been left behind. Schools mobilized to provide for the needs of millions of children across the U.S. whose only steady meals came from the school lunch program, and did their best to overcome the deep gaps in access to the computing technology and Internet service needed to participate in online learning. Even with the heroic efforts of their schools, many of these students fell through the cracks and existing inequities widened. In addition, many public school students suffer from homelessness (114,000 in New York City and 17,000 in Los Angeles alone), lack of access to healthcare, worries for parents who must risk becoming infected everyday because they are essential workers, and sometimes abuse in the home. On top of these extraordinary stressors, Black and brown children suffer immensely from seeing the violent murders of people who look like them by the police and other individuals, with almost no consequences for perpetrators and no justice for the victims. And children of Asian American Pacific Islander descent are increasingly becoming witness to or victims of overt racist attacks by individuals blaming them for “bringing the Coronavirus”. In the face of these immense sources of stress, fear, and trauma, what should schools and teachers be doing to prepare for the next academic year, which begins in less than a month in some districts?
Rather than preparing to be instructors of content, teachers must be prepared to be instructors, coaches, and mentors of children. This juxtaposition of these two teaching dispositions is not a new idea; nor is it intended to be mutually exclusive. It is entirely achievable to be a teacher of children and a teacher of content. And in an equitable classroom that prepares students to cope with the current challenges in their lives and the world they will face as adults, teachers must fulfill both roles. However, it is imperative now more than ever that teachers attend to the needs of the whole child, not just their academic needs. In this moment, when there is so much healing and recovery that students, families, and teachers need to do in the face of a pandemic that continues to rob people of their health, jobs, homes, and basic sense of security, and heightened anger about the racial disparities in our justice system and basic civil rights, we will cause more harm than good if we simply return to the past patterns of policies, practices, and priorities of “normal” school, as argued by Adelric McCain (Network for College Success, UChicago) and Hugh Vasquez (National Equity Project). Indeed, we should remember that “normal” school has not worked well for vast numbers of school children, especially Black and brown children, English learners, and children with special needs. In many cases, students have been traumatized by their experiences with “normal” school. Dr. Pedro Noguera suggests constructive ways for reopening schools in a way that puts equity at the center.
This is a time to prioritize the well-being and social-emotional needs of students, their families, and their teachers. Before we can demand that teachers teach their content effectively (in-person or via distance learning) or expect that students catch up on all the academic learning that did not happen in the Spring, we have to ask whether members of the school community, but especially children, feel safe, seen and heard, and supported. The well known Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (1995-97) found that certain traumatic experiences in childhood are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the U.S. However, the same study also found that the effects of these traumatic experiences can be offset by the presence of one dependable and caring adult in a child’s life. Sometimes, that adult is a mother, father, or a relative. More frequently, that stable, caring adult is a teacher or mentor (Paper Tiger film; Resilience: The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope film). There are not enough school counselors, social workers, and mental health providers to meet the explosion in need, especially with anticipated school budget cuts (S. Kohli, Los Angeles Times, 5/7/20). Teachers and other caring adults in children’s lives will need to step up and work together to help children recover from the traumas experienced during the pandemic school closures and even before that.
Implications for pedagogy and practice. When teachers are instructors, coaches, and mentors of children, teachers begin not by testing students about their reading and math knowledge, but by prioritizing learning about their students – who they are as persons – their strengths, interests, and lived experiences, their families, their communities, and their cultural/language backgrounds. Teachers begin also by establishing classroom norms, routines, and a culture of safety, mutual respect, risk-taking, personal and social responsibility, personal and social awareness, peer support, and low-stakes learning through “trial and error”. They endeavor to build trusting relationships with their students and their families through ongoing communication and inviting families to be a partner in their students’ learning. They check in regularly with their students and invite them to share their successes, struggles, and needs. They create opportunities for students to build relationships with their peers, which provides a powerful authentic context for students to experience healing and support – something we learned from our research study on measures of SEL. Relationship building is an ongoing process that will be challenged by events in and outside the classroom across the year. When incidents of racial injustice and intolerance occur in school and outside of it, teachers do not gloss over these events or pretend they didn’t happen. Teachers who care for students’ social-emotional well-being confront these issues head-on, centering the voices of marginalized students as they process these issues and encourage students to respond in appropriate ways. Teachers are prepared to respond to instances of racism, disrespect, or conflict within the classroom as a mediator, rather than as a punisher, to repair relationships and restore a culture of mutual respect, as well as respond to crises or traumatic experiences (with the support of families, counselors, and social workers) that affect students’ social-emotional well-being.
Some teachers may have an intuitive ability to build relationships with students, create and maintain a classroom culture of safety, support, and mutual respect, and respond appropriately to the effects of trauma in students’ lives. However, this is a skill set that many teachers will need to learn and practice. Thankfully, there are resources and an established knowledge base to draw upon from counseling psychology, social work, and the mental health field. Below are some organizations and resources that can support your school staff as they consider beginning the journey to becoming instructors, coaches, and mentors of children, prioritizing the well-being of the whole child. Our team of ELP coaches has expertise and direct experience with these student-centered, whole-child pedagogies and practices; we have also created research-based tools and design frameworks for designing measures that elicit instructionally-embedded evidence of social-emotional practices that can help teachers better understand their students’ social-emotional strengths and needs and create learning environments that nurture their SEL development. We invite you to reach out to us to learn more about how we support districts and schools.
Readings and Research
Forbes, H.T. (2012). Help for Billy. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.
Harris, N.B. (2018) The Deepest Well. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kaiser Permanente & CDC (1998). Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
Menakem, R. (2017). My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Central Recovery Press
Minahan, J. (2019, Oct). Trauma Informed Teaching Strategies. Educational Leadership, 77 (2), 30-35.
Newhouse, C. (2020, April 6). Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning. KQED Mind/Shift.
Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company
Resilient Educator (2020). Essential Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies for Managing Stress in the Classroom.
Teaching Tolerance (2020, March 23). A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus.
van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Yusem, D. (2019, May 31). Restorative Justice in Schools: SEL in Action. Mindful Schools.
Resources for Adult Well-Being
Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D, and K.B. Schellinger (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, (1), 405–432. https://www.cpr.org/sites/default/files/durlak_et_al-2011-child_development.pdf
Greenberg, M.T., Weissberg, R.P., O’Brien, M.U., Zins, J.E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M.J. (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist, 58, 466-474.
Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., Ben, H., Gravestein, C. (2012), Effectiveness of school‐based universal social, emotional, and behavioral programs: Do they enhance students’ development in the area of skill, behavior, and adjustment? Psychology in the Schools, 49(9), 892-909. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21641
Taylor, R.D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156-1171