From Parkland, Florida to Washington, DC, youth are leading change in American education – in classrooms, town hall meetings, and the streets of their communities. “The voices of young people of all races and genders, of all political persuasions and backgrounds, are rising up,” said Tim Shriver, co-chair of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. “[They] remind us what’s best about our country and challenge us to fulfill the dreams that we have for our children.”
Shriver joined a series of panelists for the Commission-hosted Youth and Family Calls to Action event, which centered on building individual and community resilience by advancing young people’s comprehensive development. The youth and parents on the panel underscored the need for safe and healthy learning environments, youth mentorship and psychological support, and approaches to school culture and classroom teaching and learning that ensure children have the support they need to thrive socially and emotionally in addition to sharpening their academic prowess.
Across the board, the panelists advocated for the integration of social and emotional learning strategies into school curriculum and after-school programs. Social and emotional learning focuses on enhancing students’ capacities to problem-solve and think critically, regulate their emotional responses, work collaboratively, and successfully deal with challenges in school, life, and the workplace. According to “The Evidence Base for How We Learn: Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development,” a collection of statements from the National Commission’s Council of Distinguished Scientists, “decades of research in human development, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and educational practice and policy, as well as other fields, have illuminated that major domains of human development — social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic — are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior. All are central to learning.”
“The Evidence Base for How We Learn” described how social and emotional learning fosters safe and positive social climates within schools and cultivates values and skills that are conducive to both strong academic performance and overall life success.
Statistics show that just 34 percent of twelfth graders were actively engaged in school in 2016, according to a Gallup Student Poll. (The poll showed that the higher the grade level, the lower the percentage of actively engaged students.) This disengagement, coupled with the inability to maturely and successfully confront and overcome adversity, leaves many youth vulnerable to adopting high-risk behaviors. In fact, just under a third of American high school students are involved in a slew of high-risk behaviors, from depression and substance abuse to physical violence. But educators are working to reverse these trends by integrating social and emotional learning into classrooms and by involving parents and communities in the process.
“In our school, it’s a requirement that every team has a weekly communication with our families,” said Roberta Duvall, who serves as the principal at Cold Springs Middle School in Reno, NV. “We highlight what it is that the students are doing in the classrooms, we highlight social-emotional lessons that are being taught in those classrooms, so that parents can have that conversation at home.”
The early integration of social and emotional learning in a child’s life enhances learning and academic performance — but it can also help to ingrain healthy attitudes and practices that would reduce their vulnerability to high-risk behaviors and better prepare them to deal with challenges in their careers and daily lives. Social and emotional learning practices aren’t just for the classroom. Out-of-school-time activities can also support students’ comprehensive development, such as service programs which enrich students’ lives by instilling the values of charity, hard work, compassion, cooperation, tolerance, and responsibility in them from a young age.
High school senior Grace Dolan-Sandrino and Princeton freshman Eric Guerci, members of the National Commission’s Youth Commission, described the benefits of restorative disciplinary policies, noting that punitive measures disengage students from their social and educational communities rather than help them to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Providing the right conditions for students to flourish means ensuring that each youth has an adult to turn to for mentorship and support and that every student is guaranteed the resources they need in order to learn. These measures are part of a holistic approach to education that engages all those who are directly involved in students’ development in order to offer young people their best chance at achieving success.
“Learning can’t happen in isolation,” said Guerci. “Students want to learn―we just need the right conditions to do so.”
You can learn more about the Youth and Family Calls to Action and sign on to show your support for an approach to education that builds students’ social, emotional, and academic skills.