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Social and emotional learning gaining new focus under Common Core


class at aspire

Third graders in Michelle Flores’s class at Aspire Capitol Heights Academy in Sacramento. Photo: Michelle Flores

SACRAMENTO – School is nothing if not an intensely social experience, which is why teacher Michelle Flores posed this question to 24 third graders at Aspire Capitol Heights Academy: “When someone makes a mistake, what do we say?”

“That’s cool,” the third graders responded in unison. “We are experts at making mistakes,” said Flores, who incorporates social and emotional instruction, including the idea that making a mistake is not cause for embarrassment, into academics at the charter school using an approach called Responsive Classroom.

As California teachers begin to strategize about how to meet the Common Core standards, some educators say that explicit instruction in social and emotional competence – teaching students how to regulate their emotions, problem-solve, and disagree respectfully, among other abilities – should be a key part of the equation. The ability to collaborate, to see others’ perspectives, and to persevere in solving problems is required of students in the Common Core. Social and emotional learning provides the interpersonal skills students need to perform these intellectual tasks, said Nancy Markowitz, an education professor and director of the Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child at San Jose State University.

“Social and emotional learning skills are foundational to children’s ability, and teachers’ ability, to implement and be successful in the Common Core standards,” Markowitz said. California is one of 45 states to adopt the Common Core standards, national benchmarks that require students to not only comprehend material, but to think deeply, argue persuasively, and consider others’ perspectives. A pilot test of new Common Core assessments is now wrapping up in California.

Markowitz gave a quick example. “To be able to do a ‘pair-share’ in class, where each kid takes a different perspective on the Civil War, listens, empathizes, and represents her point of view, the prerequisite is that students know how to share ideas,” she said.

Growing interest

Interest in social and emotional learning is burgeoning, fueled by a desire to create positive school environments and prevent bullying, disconnection, and academic underachievement. Most recently, the fatal shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut and teen sexual assaults in California and elsewhere have “triggered an avalanche of interest,” said Libia Gil, vice president at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based advocacy organization. Two huge initiatives are under way in the Oakland Unified School District and Sacramento City Unified School District, which in 2012 began a three-year process of planning, implementing and evaluating districtwide social and emotional initiatives. Each of the districts was awarded $875,000 from the NoVo Foundation, a New York philanthropic group that is working in partnership with CASEL. Lessons from Oakland and Sacramento are intended to inform social and emotional initiatives across the country.

But many educators are still unclear about what social and emotional learning is and how they can incorporate it into the classroom.

circle aspire

Morning Meeting in third grade includes a greeting as well as a time for sharing. Photo: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource Today

“We sometimes get push back from teachers, who say that ‘right now, my top priority is Common Core’, and we tell them that social and emotional learning is not a distraction,” Gil said. “You’re not going to be able to achieve Common Core standards if kids aren’t working collaboratively and aren’t engaged.”

Definitions of social and emotional learning vary, but the teachers in a new national survey released Wednesday for CASEL explained the concept as “the ability to interact or get along with others”; “teamwork or cooperative learning”; “life skills or preparing for the real world”; and “self-control or managing one’s behaviors.” The survey, conducted by the public opinion firm Hart Research, polled a representative sample of 605 teachers and found that more than 75 percent believed that a greater focus on social and emotional learning would be a “major benefit” to students because of its positive impact on workforce readiness, school attendance and graduation, life success, college preparation and academic success.

Research has found that school-based social and emotional learning programs improve students’ classroom behavior, reduce bullying and other conduct problems, and deepen connections between students and teachers, according to a analysis published in the journal Child Development of 213 programs. Schools that incorporated social and emotional learning also showed gains in student academic achievement – on average, a gain of 11 percentile points, the study found.

Equally important, children are more likely to express their creativity, curiosity and empathy in environments where they feel included and safe.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that teaching self-control, perseverance and grit, a term made popular in Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed,” is particularly critical for children who live in violent environments. “We can systematically teach these skills and provide an inoculation to some of the toxic environment,” Duncan told reporters at the Education Writers Association conference at Stanford earlier this month.

In Flores’s third grade class on a recent Thursday morning, a math discussion proceeded using what students call “professional discourse” and “academic discourse,” statements designed to help students respond politely and articulate ideas thoughtfully. The technique is part of Flores’s social and emotional teaching, which also includes holding a Morning Meeting that combines academics and time for sharing; greeting each student by name; using eye contact; and having each student do a variety of classroom jobs, which builds a sense of community and ownership.

“Javon, why do you concur with my thinking?” asked Meranza, who stood beside a document camera and an overhead projector to explain her math results. “I concur with your thoughts because,” began Javon, launching into a math proof. “Could you please project your voice, Meranza?” asked Niema. “Absolutely,” replied Meranza. “It would be my pleasure to.”

“The goal is for them to be asking the questions of each other and to have those rigorous conversations,” Flores said. “These are skills that are going to help them with the Common Core and with everything. These will help them be better people.”

Filed under: Common Core, Curriculum, Reforms, School Climate, Student Health, Student Wellbeing, Teaching

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8 Responses to “Social and emotional learning gaining new focus under Common Core”

  1. Paul said

    on May 17, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    “You’re not going to be able to achieve Common Core standards if kids aren’t working collaboratively and aren’t engaged.”

    This quote is right-on. I’ve seen the Responsive/Democratic Classroom in action in an urban elementary school, and imitated a few of the practices. At the secondary level, the College Preparatory Math (CPM) curriculum — the only one that did not need a major rewrite for the Common Core — relies on structured group work. I’ve taught CPM in two urban high schools.

    Once students have learned the skills necessary for teamwork (which must, it bears mentioning, be taught explicitly, because “sit down, shut up and write” or “chat but don’t learn” approaches are all too common in urban schools), the programs really shine. If a social-emotional learning (SEL) approach doesn’t help heterogeneous groups of students to understand content, then I don’t know what will.

    Thank you for this article.

    • Paul replied

      on May 17, 2013 at 9:37 pm

      I also wanted to share a hilarious example of SEL gone wrong. It’s from an ASCD video, circa 1980. On the first day of school, a first-grade class is discussing what to do if two people want to play with the same doll. After all of the usual suggestions have been voiced, one student puts a hand up and says, completely earnestly, “cut it in half!”

      • Lori Vollandt replied

        on May 31, 2013 at 9:10 am

        Pragmatic and math based problem solving!

  2. Ken Breeding said

    on May 17, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    RT is sadly misguided. The skills to challenge “barriers” are all social-emotional skills. The skills to achieve 80-90% of almost any district’s mission statement are social-emotional skills. The ability to manage one’s self and to interact productively with others are all social-emotional skills. The reason public schools have not reached their mandate is that they have not emphasized purposeful, effective teaching to have students acquire the critical social-emotional skills necessary for any academic outcome, not to mention the broader outcomes public education is mandated to achieve.

  3. XYZ said

    on May 16, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    RT, it’s not either or; it’s integrated; although for your comments to be true, we would have to look at the APIs for this school vs. a school that is strict teach to the test, education means academic topics only. Actually, the APIs will be posted soon? I can’t remember.

  4. RT said

    on May 16, 2013 at 6:59 am

    When you have an education system that is more concerned with socialization than education, more concerned with the “self-esteem” of students than the expectations set for students, and more concerned with the “barriers” faced by students than challenging students to deal with those “barriers” , you create spoiled, uneducated and entitled students.
    California’s answer to this is to add more focus on social and emotional learning skills?
    These changes will ensure that California continues to lead the nation in poorly educated students.
    Until California’s education system starts to educate, students will never get the education they need.

    • Reply replied

      on May 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Social/Emotional education includes self control, assertiveness skills, and problem solving, all of which are needed to educate an individual. Many studies have shown that academics get boosted significantly when SEL is taught because teachers spend less time on “classroom management” (behavioral issues) and more time teaching. Students can learn when they are able to ask for what they need (assertiveness) work together (problem solving and empathy) and sit still and listen (self control). This is not just California, every State in the U.S. has something in their legislation that speaks to relational aggression (bullying) and Social/Emotional education.

    • Lori Vollandt replied

      on May 31, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Please transport your comments to the work site. If people can’t get along with each other and don’t understand how their actions effect other people, what kind of work environment would it be? Social emotional learning teaches kids to have empathy, impulse control, anger management and problem solving. I think you don’t really understand what this is about. I say unless we educate kids how to work in a cooperative environments then students will never get the education they need,

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