Last month, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social Emotional, and Academic Development released a long-awaited report titled “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” offering recommendations for further integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into schools to support the whole student. Written by key educational leaders, researchers, and policymakers, it represents a major milestone in the SEL movement.

“The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself,” the report says.

The report was catalyzed by the ongoing work of organizations like CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning).

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“The Commission’s report is a must-read and, most importantly, a must-do for all educators and policymakers,” said Karen Niemi, president of CASEL. “Students are begging for the kinds of social and emotional efforts the Commission recommends. We are more optimistic than ever about the potential for SEL to reach more youth, schools, and communities.”

Here are four key insights from the report—along with some of our own recommendations for transforming these insights into specific practices at your school.

“Build adult expertise” (through learning experiences)

Research tells us that the adult is the key ingredient to successfully implementing social, emotional, and academic development in schools. The Commission’s report emphasizes building adult expertise through “educator preparation in child development and the science of learning.” However, it also highlights the value of “ongoing support for the social-emotional learning of teachers,” which is central to teachers’ personal and professional development.

But how do you light a fire under your colleagues if they aren’t sure they have the time or energy or interest in incorporating SEL into their classrooms in the first place?

Professional development trainings are important, but teacher “buy-in” only happens in a relational space where you can experience social-emotional learning together. If you want to transform your school, devote time to fostering trust and psychological safety among your colleagues.

Here are four research-based activities to try in pairs or small groups:

  • Mindful Breathing: Slowing down to breathe gives everyone permission to stop and connect with that part of themselves that makes them human—a good reminder given that schools are in the business of developing human beings!
  • Active Listening: Creating the time and space to actively listen to a colleague can build empathy and a sense of connection—and it can help fill a teacher’s emotional tank, which so often gets depleted from the demands of teaching.
  • Feeling Supported: Starting the year with a list of up to six people we can turn to for support will help remind teachers and principals that they’re not alone in what can be a very isolating profession. 
  • Best Possible Self: Introducing the Best Possible Self practice to teachers at the beginning of the year—and allowing them to focus on things other than increasing test scores—is a wonderful way to communicate to teachers that who they are matters.

You can also incorporate opening and closing rituals into your staff meetings to create a sense of belonging, connection, and mutual support. The Oakland School District recommends using questions like these to start your meeting:

  • “A success I recently had…”
  • “One thing that’s new about…”
  • “One norm I will hold today is…”

Or you can end meetings with an optimistic closure and/or a reflective component:

  • “A word or phrase that reflects how I feel about moving forward with this…”
  • “I’d like to offer appreciation for ____________ because…”
  • “I’m eager to learn more about…”

Once you have established a greater sense of trust, you can begin to really dig in together to explore and experience social-emotional learning.

For example, consider examining your beliefs, values and purpose as educators by discussing how and why you entered the profession. Talk honestly about the triggers you experience at work and how you navigate your own emotions. Then, examine how your culture and upbringing influence the way you express your emotions.

You might also introduce a few mindfulness and self-compassion practices by informally sharing them with colleagues or incorporating them into staff meetings. Finally, consider creating individual resilience plans and sharing them.

These are the types of activities we feature at our annual Summer Institute for Educators at UC Berkeley. We prioritize the well-being and personal development of educators, share and experience the science of human development, and then reflect on the ways we can apply this work to our classrooms. As the report’s authors remind us, “When adults model these skills for young people, their own well-being improves.”

“Transform learning settings so they are safe and supportive for all young people”

With this recommendation, the Aspen Institute’s report acknowledges the research indicating that students of color and low-income students are less likely than their peers to feel a sense of trust, safety, and support at school.  The authors advise us to create “settings that are physically and emotionally safe and foster strong bonds among children and adults.” This only begins to happen when the teacher-student relationship becomes central. So how do you build a strong, authentic bond?

Professor Shawn Ginwright draws a distinction between “transactional” relationships” that are simply a function of our titles—like teacher and student—and “transformational” relationships that are more about sharing our humanity by really learning about each other.

“Our relationships with students are not a one-way system; we don’t simply support young people,” he says. “We need to have both a lens and a mirror as we work with students.” In other words, it’s not just about seeing them; it’s about seeing ourselves as we interact with them.

That means, in part, unearthing and examining our own implicit biases and assumptions about the kids in our schools and classrooms. Self-awareness is a foundational component of social and emotional learning—one that begins with the questions you ask yourself. What are the stories you tell yourself (or others) about your students—and how do you tell them? Do you help your students feel powerful at school and celebrate their strengths?

In light of our biases (we all have them!), consider how comfortable you are talking about race, racism, or other “isms” in the classroom. Whatever your level of comfort, these simple sentence stems from Teaching Tolerance may prompt you to reflect: “The hard part of talking about race/racism is…” and “The beneficial part of talking about race/racism is…”

In addition, this self-assessment tool from Teaching Tolerance may help you to identify your vulnerabilities, strengths, and needs in order to more thoughtfully prepare yourself for facilitating discussions about race with your students.

Organizations like Teaching Tolerance, the National Equity Project, and Facing History and Ourselves provide additional tools for adult development as well as classroom-based projects, units, and lessons.

Looking inside of ourselves is important—but so is looking at schoolwide policies that enhance or undermine the student’s relationship to teachers and other students. In fact, the Aspen Institute report focuses on building “structures and practices that foster long-term relationships” at school. Examples include class meetings, advisory groups, and team teaching of cohorts. “Every school should make sure each student has at least one adult to go to and trust,” said a Commission member.

In addition, the authors emphasize the importance of “ending punitive and counterproductive disciplinary strategies.” Research suggests that exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) can be alienating and counterproductive, and restorative practices (strategies that focus on learning from mistakes and repairing relationships rather than punishing students) may offer a more humanizing, equitable, and respectful alternative. In restorative justice processes, students come together to learn to navigate conflicts, process their feelings, and collaboratively problem-solve a way forward.

When reviewing disciplinary practices at your school, also consider the following: Who is being disciplined? How often, and why? If your school is like many others in the U.S., your students of color are disproportionately disciplined for the same or similar infractions when compared to white students. How is your school addressing that difference? Are preventive strategies your number-one priority (e.g., relationship and community building)? How do you model and practice communication strategies for resolving conflicts?

“Embed these skills in academics and schoolwide practices”

The Commission’s report reminds us, “If learning is social, emotional, and cognitive, then teachers should routinely build such connections into academic content to increase student learning and engagement.” As we acknowledge that our students’ needs and backgrounds range widely, we are also learning that a one-size-fits-all curricular approach to social-emotional learning isn’t effective in many classrooms and schools. Further, some teachers find that standalone social-emotional learning lessons aren’t appealing to their older students, nor do they have time to incorporate them as add-ons.

Our own focus group research with teachers confirms the report’s findings. Many educators would prefer to have the option to flexibly infuse culturally relevant social-emotional learning experiences within their academic content and daily schoolwide practices. But what can this look like?

Authentic learning opportunities present themselves in literature classes where students can peek into the emotional lives of people different from themselves, or in social studies classrooms when they literally take on the perspectives of historical figures, or in math classrooms when students engage in well-structured cooperative learning projects to practice building interpersonal skills. They can also learn SEL skills during recess and in community circles held during classroom meetings and advisory periods.

Of course, many teachers may already be embedding social, emotional, and academic skills into classroom activities. For example, many topics, books, and concepts in the curricula already involve:

  • a person’s emotional life
  • an ethical dilemma
  • a situation calling for compassion
  • a societal challenge
  • the ethical use of knowledge
  • cross-group interactions
  • an implicit relational concept, such as ecosystems or the Declaration of Independence.

You might also keep the following questions in mind as you consider planning and creating learning experiences for your students:

  • Does the lesson involve challenging conversations that might surface a clash in values?
  • Are students required to work with a partner or in groups?
  • Is the assignment so demanding that students might need to attend to their emotions or demonstrate attention and perseverance?
  • Do they need to exhibit self-confidence—for example, during an oral presentation—or set long-term goals, or make ethical choices?

By integrating SEL into curricular content, you are not only giving students opportunities to practice their social-emotional skills, but also showing them how integral these skills are in our daily lives. The report’s authors emphasize that “students’ understanding of subjects of history, literature, and science is deepened when they can reflect on the ethical and moral choices that people made, think critically about big ideas, and understand how what they are learning might help them achieve a desired goal.”

“Forge closer connections between research and practice”

The Commission’s report makes a powerful argument for moving forward with “actionable solutions” for teachers based on the rich research base we have already established in the field, and they recommend that we commit to translating this research into “evidence-based tools and practices.” This is the primary work of the GGSC’s education team this year.

We are preparing to launch a free online resource for educators this fall called “Greater Good in Education” (GGIE). In many ways, it complements and builds on the current Greater Good in Action (GGIA) site that provides science-based practices for daily well-being. However, GGIA is geared primarily for adults.

GGIE will distill strategies and practices for the social, emotional, and ethical development of both students and the adults who work with them, synthesizing the top insights and best practices from science, programs, and practitioners. We hope to launch our site with over 100 practices and lessons, representing research in SEL, mindfulness, and character education.

You will be able to search for practices for adults and students at all developmental levels (including college) with topics ranging from school relationships to self-awareness to social responsibility. This “People Who Made A Difference” lesson is a sample of what you might see when you search for gratitude practices to incorporate into your upper elementary or middle school curriculum. And here is a “Dialogue Journal” practice for the high school classroom to foster both self-awareness and relationship skills in you and your students.

We look forward to sharing many more practical instructional strategies with you in the coming months as we work together on behalf of our children, teens, and young adults. “This embrace of social, emotional, and academic learning is a moment of opportunity. Done wisely and well, it’s an opportunity to translate growing knowledge about how people learn into real-world practices that benefit students,” say educators Frederick M. Hess and Tim Shriver.

As we hold up our mission of building a kinder, more compassionate, and more equitable society, we are committed to providing more research-based tools to support teachers and children across the globe.

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