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.
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.
“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.”