Expanding social emotional learning so all students can benefit

Credit: Alison Yin/EdSourceCredit: Alison Yin/EdSourceLinda Darling-Hammond, Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Tony ThurmondOctober 29, 2020This fall, a typical “classroom” looks unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Yet, during every Zoom session, teacher Paul Drake of Santa Rosa’s Hidden Valley Elementary School uses a familiar and powerful strategy to gauge his second-grade students’ readiness to engage and learn:
Linda Darling-HammondHe takes the time to ask students “How are you?”
That might seem like a small action, but as Drake says, “If you’re not connecting with students, there’s no learning going on.” Explicit conversation modeling — a Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, technique — helps anxious students understand their feelings and manage their worries, Drake says. “When they see that whatever they’re experiencing is normal, the whole class gets back to work.”
Drake is a 28-year teaching veteran who helps lead Santa Rosa City School’s social-emotional learning efforts, an initiative started after the 2017 Tubbs fire and now key to advancing learning since schools are physically closed in his community due to Covid-19.
Jennifer Siebel NewsomAs teachers like Drake can attest, this school year has presented unparalleled challenges for educators, parents, and students alike. The pandemic, compounded with wildfires and the urgent need to redress racial inequity in our society, has upended any sense of normalcy in our schools. And as our students and educators slowly begin returning to school buildings, life will look dramatically different with social distancing and myriad safety precautions in place.
Trauma, in fact, may well be one of the unifying experiences of 2020 — and evidence exists that a widespread mental health crisis amongst our youth has already begun.
That is why now, more than ever, there is urgency to expand social and emotional learning so all students in California can benefit. And it is critical that these efforts are supported at both the local and state level.
Tony ThurmondSocial and emotional learning, as a practice, is a set of strategies to help students develop the emotional skills that are vital for success in school — and life — like developing self-awareness, navigating healthy relationships, and building resilience. Research shows that social and emotional learning gives students a greater sense of trust and belonging, makes schools safer, and significantly increases academic achievement.
In other words, when used effectively, social and emotional learning can be the bridge between the trauma that our students face, and those same students’ readiness to learn the more traditional set of curricula that teachers are trained to teach.
“We live in a traumatic, fast-paced world. Kids are not sheltered from this,” Drake says. “To slow it down allows for so much more learning. If one person doesn’t feel safe, none of us feel safe and learning will not happen in the way we want it to. We are very tuned to the emotional state of the people around us.”
Social and emotional learning is not new in our schools, but we must accelerate our efforts to make it commonplace. And yes, this school year has stretched educators beyond what they could have imagined. But social and emotional learning isn’t an add-on. For many educators, it’s already a part of what they do, day in and day out.  The opportunity to help young people grow into empathetic, self-actualized, and resilient adults is what brought teachers to — and keeps them in — the classroom in the first place.
We are already seeing hopeful signs of success across California, as educators in every grade level and every district have demonstrated their tremendous power to help students succeed academically, navigate life’s difficulties, and overcome challenges by making social-emotional learning a regular part of the curriculum. “This is our foundation,” said Drake. “SEL is our foundation.”
And the more that social and emotional learning is embraced, the bigger impact it can have.
In Santa Rosa, the school board’s mission statement includes social and emotional learning as a priority and teachers can opt for professional development during common learning time on Wednesdays. Parents, too, are being offered social and emotional learning training to help them cope with their roles in distance learning. “To do this well, adults need to internalize it – they need to know their own internal environment,” said Assistant Superintendent Stephen Mizera. “We are changing our culture through SEL.”
When embraced district wide, as in Santa Rosa, social and emotional learning can help students build the self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship building, social awareness, and self-management skills that will help them grow into caring, independent, and responsible adults. Exactly the type of future leaders California needs.
And while implementing social and emotional learning well like Santa Rosa School District has done may sound daunting, so many incredible resources and best practices are already out there to help teachers and administrators achieve their goals.
Last month, Advance SEL in California, a campaign launched in partnership with the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the Office of the First Partner, released a report including policy suggestions and specific actions that school leaders can take now, drawn from students, parents, educators and policymakers across the state. The department also has a variety of resources available for educators to use at no cost on its website.
Furthermore, school leaders can leverage funds allocated in this year’s state budget, which included $5.3 billion that schools can use to support programs for social and emotional learning and $45 million for districts and county offices of education to help coordinate delivery of mental health and social-emotional supportive services. Local educational agencies must also develop and publish plans outlining how they will address student mental health and social-emotional well-being.
We urge those in the education community to take advantage of these resources, and make time for social and emotional learning in the curriculum, support educators’ learning, and connect this to a culturally responsive curriculum that fosters greater acceptance, belonging, and understanding in our schools.
Educators like Drake and many others across our state have opportunities every day to make meaningful connections that strengthen students’ chances of success in school as well as in life. It is our job to support them in doing so.
To our education community: let’s stand together committed to ensuring this transformative work continues — and creates meaningful, tangible change that improves the lives of students when they need us the most.
And to the children and families of California: we know this year has been immeasurably difficult, and we stand ready to support you in navigating our path back to a healthier and more sustainable future for everyone.
Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the State Board of Education. Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the First Partner of California. Tony Thurmond is California State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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