K-12 Education

Integrating Social and Emotional Learning into the Curriculum: Lessons for Education Leaders

May 11, 2017

This Time, With Feeling: Integrating Social and Emotional Development and College- and Career-Readiness Standards, a new report from the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program, shares ideas for how education leaders can prepare students for college and careers by attending to their social and emotional development. Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, comments on the report and shares her lessons learned for deeply embedding social and emotional development in the overall student experience and explicitly connecting it to academic instruction.

Over the past two school years, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has focused on improving the culture and climate of our district by building a strong sense of community and connection for everyone who enters our doors. At the foundation of this work is a commitment to model, teach, and reinforce the five-core social emotional learning (SEL) competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. We know these critical skills will be a game changer for our students, both now and in college, career, and adult life.

One way to support students’ social and emotional development is by building strong relationships that allow students to be seen, heard, and understood. Another way to is to integrate social and emotional learning with academic instruction. We are starting to see the results of both approaches in Atlanta. Teachers are using their new knowledge of students to support them in more meaningful ways. And students who once were regularly referred to the office are now able to listen and attend to core academic lessons.

I’m often asked, from an urban school superintendent’s perspective, to give advice to others in the field who are taking beginning steps to SEL implementation in their own districts. There is no magic formula and no singular path, but I do believe that truly integrating social, emotional, and academic development in all aspects of the education experience is more effective than viewing SEL as a stand-alone effort. This Time, With Feeling provides a clear and effective blueprint of this integration for other districts to follow.

Here are some key drivers related to the report that I believe are necessary and that I have employed both in my former district in Austin, Texas, and now for APS:

  • Ensuring SEL is a clear priority in the district’s strategic plan. The report emphasizes the need to build awareness and ownership of the fact that SEL is foundational to active engagement and meaningful learning and that focusing on it is essential for helping students meet college- and career-readiness standards. Based on my experiences, involving input from key stakeholders—including staff, parents, community leaders, students, and the local board of education—is a must. By incorporating the input of multiple stakeholders within the design of the strategic plan, SEL implementation will be seen and felt across teams, across departments, and across the district.
  • Developing a course for implementation. Every district will take a different approach, but it must come from the vision as set by a committed core team and should reflect the context of the district’s circumstances. In Austin, I was much more deliberative in the rollout of SEL, taking several years and building the momentum for school implementation in a more organic way because some real, core cultural competencies were already in place. After Atlanta’s highly publicized cheating scandal, I had a much shorter runway to rebuild trust. We had to approach the work of SEL not only from an emotional and academic standpoint, but also as a lever to lift longstanding trust issues; build a better culture and climate for all stakeholders; and ensure our schools were safe, supportive, and inclusive.
  • Building capacity and aligning support. This Time, With Feeling makes the point that transformation sometimes begins with adults. In Atlanta, we’ve provided initial and ongoing professional development and rolled out instruction to 65 of our schools with the plan to finish expanding to all 70 of our schools by next year. We are ensuring we have the right talent management strategy in place so we attract the best adults to work with our students and have embarked on a family and community engagement strategy so we are working alongside our community. A tall order for sure, but if these key components are approached systematically and with fidelity, it works.
  • Building towards real academic integration. Each APS school has an SEL team charged with designing SEL implementation at their school—from ensuring that SEL instruction is an explicit part of the master schedule to developing systems for monitoring implementation and providing quality feedback to teachers. It cannot be understated that this commitment to teaching explicit SEL curriculum, something that is recommended in the Aspen report, has a direct impact on academic achievement. Our teachers report that the time spent teaching these core skills is given back to them during the day as they are no longer redirecting student behavior and students are problem solving on their own. At the district level, we are providing ongoing support to schools through the creation of a dedicated SEL department, which is providing much-needed resources such as documents showing the relationships between SEL and academic instruction. Additionally, we have revamped our freshman high school transitions course to have a heavy focus on developing SEL core competencies. These beginning steps are small, but mighty. We are already seeing short-term wins such as increased attendance, increased student and adult engagement, and reduced behavior incidents. Over time, we will see a greater impact on school culture, climate, and student academic success.
  • Championing the work personally while planning for sustainability. The superintendent must truly embrace the work and be seen as the lead driver for SEL in the district. It’s about walking the walk; intimately knowing the work and understanding the research; and regularly communicating the message to the district, community, and stakeholders. You must dive in! At the same time, it’s critical for the current superintendent to intentionally put structures in place to ensure that the next superintendent can seamlessly continue the work. While this certainly involves long-term funding streams and district leadership support, it must also entail creating a foundation of SEL so embedded in the culture of the schools and district that it becomes as essential as the traditional core subjects. That’s the best legacy a superintendent can leave.

Again, there is no set formula for integrating social, emotional, and academic development in the K-12 education experience, although This Time, With Feeling provides sound findings for getting started. Based on my experiences, doing this work well requires a vision, a plan, an implementation strategy, and a process of review and adjustment. And what is crystal clear is that SEL matters for whole child development.

As our colleges and employers demand better social and emotional skills from our children, we must ensure that they have both the smarts and the hearts to navigate, adapt and succeed in our ever-changing global society.

Meria Joel Carstarphen, Ed.D, is superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. She brings to Atlanta an impressive record in transformative educational leadership that has led to significant student performance gains. Dr. Carstarphen has nearly 20 years of education and experience in diverse, major metropolitan public school districts, including Austin, Texas; Saint Paul, Minn.; and the District of Columbia. In Atlanta, she leads the district’s 52,000 students, 6,300 employees and 98 learning sites and oversees the system’s $1 billion annual budget. Dr. Carstarphen is a member of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.