Consider the whole child: The power of social-emotional learning

Note: This is the fourth in a series of blogs on using your assessment data to address learning gaps during the 2020–2021 school year. To access the complete series, click here.

One of our Renaissance colleagues has an eight-year-old granddaughter named Lillian. After ten weeks of learning from home, Lillian engaged in the final assignments of the 2019–2020 school year: Watching a video of astronauts in the International Space Station experimenting with slime, observing clouds and determining their type, and participating in a class meeting via Zoom.

As Lillian’s co-teachers moved to the final item on the class meeting agenda—asking what the children had liked most about second grade—the meeting became more than academic. Students mentioned their teachers and friends. They talked about class events and reading time. Overwhelmingly, they talked about the STEM unit that required multiple tasks involving toilet paper. They seemed genuinely proud of their learning. After the giggles and goodbyes, the Zoom window closed.

“I don’t know why, but I’m sad,” Lillian reflected. “Is school over? Am I a third grader now?”

Why school is more than academics

Academic attainment is clearly at the heart of education, but school involves much more than academics. There are physical, social, and academic routines inherent in school that students, families, and the community embrace. Working within these routines, students develop independence, learn to manage a schedule, discover favorite writers, engage in debates, conduct experiments, solve problems, and help one another.

These routines are bookended by two significant rites of passage—the first day of kindergarten, which marks the start of K–12 education, and high school graduation, which marks its conclusion. Perhaps closing the 2019–2020 school year without typical routines and traditional rites of passage seems, to some students, families, and communities, incomplete.

Yet, kindergarten children did experience their first day of school in 2019, and high school seniors did graduate—some in very creative ways. Take, for example, leaders from 23 north Texas high schools, who worked in partnership with local businesses—particularly the Texas Motor Speedway—to host commencement ceremonies. While family members watched via livestream from their cars in the parking lot or from home, seniors walked Victory Lane to receive their diplomas. Other community, school, and business leaders engaged in equally unique solutions to honor students’ accomplishments.

Reason and the whole child

School leaders are preparing for multiple scenarios for Back-to-School (BTS) 2020, as well as for the potential for significant gaps in student learning. There will certainly be an intense focus on screening students to determine where they are academically, and to identify the best ways to accelerate their learning. Additionally, we’ll need to take a reasoned approach to assessment and learning expectations as we consider where students are affectively as well as academically.

What do we mean by “affect”?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) describes social and emotional learning (SEL) as the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. By design, CASEL focuses on both academic and social and emotional growth.

The relationship between the academic and the affective is, of course, not at all new. Euclid famously lectured Ptolemy about the emotional strength necessary to withstand the rigors of geometry, and Plato charged the community with taking an active role in education to bring up students of good character. A couple of millennia later, James Comer and his colleagues developed the Comer Process, focused on improving educational experiences of poor, minority youth via a positive school climate. The Comer Process established the foundation for present-day approaches to academic, emotional, and social growth.

Research on SEL has shown that specific attention to social and emotional competencies has a positive impact on students’ academic growth—especially when SEL is embedded in the curriculum and linked to content (Sparks, 2015; O’Conner et al., 2017). A helpful review of this research—along with questions to consider as you implement—is available at the Educational Endowment Foundation website.

Familiar instructional practices and routines—such as appropriate math challenges, science experiments, social studies discussions, a focus on creativity across the arts, opportunities for building up the physical body, and dedicated time for independent reading—all embed SEL competencies across the curriculum.

So, how does a consideration of SEL affect your fall assessment plans? Even with the urgency related to identifying and addressing learning gaps at BTS 2020, we’d be wise to “ease into” fall screening. Consider scheduling screening two or three weeks after the academic year begins, so students have time to absorb and become accustomed to new routines. Also, consider the potential impact of staggered school attendance and how this form of social distancing may impact screening windows. Working with smaller groups of students allows for more time to address the social and emotional needs of each child—but will also require more “hands on deck” for each course of study.

Resources to support the whole child in learning

Whether students return to school buildings this fall or continue to learn remotely, attention to students’ academic and emotional responses to assessment and learning should remain a central focus. As Stiggins (2017) points out, “A student’s emotional response to assessment results will determine what that student decides to do about those results: keep working or give up.”

After all of the COVID-19 “dragons” that we’ve collectively conquered over the past few months, we simply cannot allow students to “give up.” To help ensure they remain optimistic about learning, consider the following strategies, all based on SEL principles:

Use developmentally appropriate challenges to build community. One example of this is the 1, 2, 3, 4 math problem—also known as the Principal’s Math Challenge. The setup is simple: the building principal challenges students to write mathematical expressions for each number from 0–50, using only the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. All operations are permitted, but each number must be used—and can only be used once.

Students can work independently, with partners, or in teams to write the expressions. Once verified as accurate by other students or by the teacher, students submit their answers to the principal, who posts them publicly. The focus is on creativity in expressions, resiliency in finding multiple solutions, collaboration and sharing among peers, and celebrating achievement.

Ensure adequate time for independent reading. Reading provides another avenue to build social and emotional competencies. Reading fiction improves students’ ability to walk in other people’s shoes and flex their imaginations. Experiences we read about—whether in fiction or nonfiction—activate areas of the brain as if we were physically engaged in them (Clark, 2013). Independent reading builds vocabulary, knowledge, reading confidence, reading stamina, and social and emotion competencies related to empathy.

Renaissance’s What Kids Are Reading report is a helpful resource to support daily independent reading. In addition to listing the most popular books at each grade level (based on Accelerated Reader data), the report also highlights popular digital reads on myON and includes cross-curricular booklists that focus on SEL, the arts, social studies, and science.

Establish routines that promote inclusion and engagement. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, CASEL established a CASEL CARES website, with resources to support both distance learning and planning for BTS 2020. You may find their Three Signature Strategies document particularly helpful. The strategies are divided into three broad groups:

  • Welcoming/inclusion activities
  • Engaging strategies, brain breaks, and transitions
  • Optimistic closures

Here is an example of a welcoming/inclusion activity, appropriate for middle- and high-school students, based on a ritual used in the US Supreme Court. Each justice begins the workday by shaking every other justice’s hand. This makes a public statement that—despite strongly held differences of opinion—civility, respect, and personal connections are vital for getting the work done. Even in an era of social distancing, when literal hand-shaking may not be possible, creating a ritual and making a public statement that learning requires civility, respect, and personal connections brings greater importance to the tasks at hand.

In addition to these strategies, you’ll find ideas in a special report on SEL from Education Week. The report includes guidance from school leaders on implementing SEL to an even greater degree during the 2020–2021 school year. It also includes six commentaries, along with national survey data, describing how district, school, and classroom leaders view SEL and how a high school is embedding SEL into daily routines.

A recent article in NEA Today offers further guidance on making SEL a priority as we approach BTS 2020. Also, as Turner (2020) notes, Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain video is a must-see for every educator who’s engaged in BTS planning.

Connecting thinking and feeling

Let’s return to Lillian and her question about whether she’s really a third grader now.

Lillian has continued to think and talk about her second-grade experience, and she’s shared her frustration that she couldn’t “change why the school shut down.” Of course, none of us could change why school buildings had to close, yet we did work diligently in the hope that teaching and learning would continue. And in Lillian’s case, it did.

The topic of “slime in space” led to several discussions of polymers, gravity, and astronauts. Observing the clouds became a routine part of outdoor activities. Lillian comes from a family of educators, and school is almost part of her DNA. Although she was engaged, she still felt that something was missing from her virtual school experience. If Lillian felt this gap, imagine how students feel who experienced limited or no access to online learning, little engagement with peers, and no support from a caring adult. It didn’t take a pandemic to demonstrate that school involves more than academics; it also provides supports that many students count on to fill gaps in their daily lives. Every educator understands that learning is both a cognitive and emotional enterprise.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

BTS 2020 will need to focus—even more strongly than in previous years—on the whole child, the whole educator, the whole parent, and the whole community. Attending to the whole person in teaching and learning comes down to two essential questions:

  • Are you OK?
  • What did you learn today?

If students are OK, they are learning. If students are learning, they will be OK. As Antonio Damasio famously remarked, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” As we look ahead to fall, let’s keep these two simple questions in mind—so we stay focused on what matters the most.

In our next blog, we’ll explore the related topic of identifying your instructional focus for fall. Specifically, we’ll discuss how to identify the most essential skills in each domain, so you can get the greatest return from every minute spent on instruction.

Which skills are most critical at each grade level? Get the answer in the next blog in this series, along with tips for closing COVID-related gaps in student learning.

References

Clark, C. (2013). A novel look at how stories may change the brain. Retrieved from: http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html
Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Pantheon.
O’Conner, R., et al. (2017). A review of the literature on social and emotional learning for students ages 3–8: Characteristics of successful social and emotional learning programs. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED572721.pdf
Sparks, S. (2015). Positive mindset may prime students’ brains for math. Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/12/09/biological-evidence-found-for-mindset-theory.html
Turner, W. (2020). Social emotional learning: Not just for kids. Retrieved from: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/sel-adults
Stiggins, R. (2017). The perfect assessment system. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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