The time has come to look beyond the “Three Rs” and embrace a teaching style that links social and emotional wellbeing to academic achievement.
That was the takeaway earlier this year when the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development met to release their report, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.” Experts from the fields of neuroscience, education research, medicine, economics, and psychology forged a consensus that affirms “the interconnectedness of social, emotional, and cognitive development as central to the learning process.”
The report re-imagines the basics of education by emphasizing that social and emotional values are just as important to education as academics are. “Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs,” the report says.
This new approach is not merely an educational fad. American employers now place a premium on the ability to work collaboratively in diverse teams and having the resilience to adjust to rapid change, which are strengthened when social and emotional development is integral to education.
To those who might suggest that emphasizing these skills may dilute the mastery of basics such as math or English, the report emphasizes that social and emotional development actually helps students better learn those and other subjects — more than two decades of research illustrate that social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of learning are “deeply linked,” according to the report, and result in better test scores, attendance, and higher graduation rates.
When members of NCSEAD met with educators and community members, Kris Hinrichsen, an elementary school teacher from Alaska, expressed the hope that teachers themselves would take away a few lessons, especially that a learning process that values social connection can benefit teachers as well as students. He observed that teachers can discover tremendous job satisfaction by supporting and strengthening their students’ social and emotional intelligence.
Social and emotional learning works best when taught directly, according to Daniel McCutchen, who took a class in high school dedicated to these skills. Daniel battled with anxiety and OCD at the time, and shared that he found that the class established a sense of community for him that helped manage emotions, forge meaningful relationships, and set goals. “Teachers and schools need to make sure that their kids [feel wanted],” said Daniel, now a sophomore at Harvard.”If you can make a student feel valued, everything else will follow.”
Fahren Johnson, Programs Manager for Expanded Learning Opportunities at the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, spoke about how the benefits of learning outside of the traditional school settings affected her personally. Johnson shared that she was a foster child, and that she was about six when she was taken in by someone she credits with deepening her social and emotional intelligence. She described her foster mother as a woman who “didn’t birth me, but she mothered me.” This fundamentally influenced her life: “It is why I am here today and why I do the work I do today.”
Integrating these lessons into our schools can do the same for countless more.