When we think of school we too often picture rows of students sitting quietly at their desks, listening to the teacher or reading a textbook. This familiar image of a quiet classroom and docile students is and should be increasingly outdated. The state’s new Common Core and Next Generation science standards require teachers to teach and students to learn in more dynamic ways. They raise the bar for subject-matter knowledge in English, math and science.
These standards also aim to ensure that students engage in deeper learning by focusing on what are sometimes called “the four C’s:” communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. These are skills that are essential for success in today’s job market that cannot be nurtured if students are sitting quietly in rows in the classroom.
California’s new Common Core standards and a growing body of research are driving increased interest in social-emotional learning as an essential component of student success. Without skills like the ability to manage stress, to empathize with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and to engage successfully in the small-group work required for deeper learning, students cannot be successful. And, unless educators work actively to help students develop these skills, schools will not be able to deliver on the broader set of Local Control Funding Formula priorities that the state has adopted, promoting positive and productive school climates.
This emerging focus on social-emotional learning in California’s education system is a welcome change. We’ve spent far too long focused on multiple-choice bubbles and number 2 pencils, and not enough time building the skills that matter most for successful adults. Skills like being able to control your emotions and reactions, getting along well with a variety of people, and being confident about learning are just a few of the skills that are actively pursued in schools that focus on social-emotional learning. They sound remarkably similar to the characteristics we would look for in a good worker, friend or neighbor.
This change also opens a window of opportunity for educators to take advantage of California’s after-school and summer infrastructure. Often overlooked, these out-of-school programs can play a key role in providing the kinds of relationships, supports and opportunities that are essential to social-emotional learning.
At the most basic level, they offer safe environments for young people from low-income neighborhoods to be with friends, relax and play.
But high-quality after-school and summer programs are doing much more. They connect young people with adults – often college students – who come from similar backgrounds, who understand the challenges and barriers that they face, and who serve as role models for expanding their horizons. With this kind of adult guidance young people can see that it pays off to work hard, stay on task and take control of their futures.
Students who regularly participate in these programs can gain the equivalent of an additional 90 to 115 days of learning each year. (A school’s instructional calendar in California is usually 180 days). Extra time in well-run after-school and summer programs allows youth to dig deep into the topics and skills that most interest them, and it gives teachers and staff in those programs the flexibility to support this exploration. What better way for students to experience their learning potential, also known as a growth mindset! And, finally, good after-school and summer programs are settings that can provide a stage for young people to find their voice and to develop leadership skills.
In the past, students’ experiences in school and after school have been vastly different, with the school day mostly focused on academics and out-of-school hours disproportionately focused on play.
Now, with new understanding about the value of social-emotional learning, there’s a unique opportunity to build on the synergy between the school day and after-school and summer programs at other times – a synergy that gives students consistent supports and opportunities all day and all year long.
But this change won’t happen without schools and their after-school and summer partners intentionally working to understand each other’s goals, priorities and language, establishing mechanisms and systems to coordinate their efforts, and jointly assessing their progress toward building students’ social-emotional learning skills.
A group of nine California school districts, including large districts like Fresno, Oakland and Los Angeles Unified and smaller ones like San Rafael and San Leandro Unified, are already engaged in this work and are seeing the benefits. They are part of a professional learning community convened by the Partnership for Children & Youth called Expanded Learning 360°/365, which has been meeting for the past 18 months to figure out ways to bring their districts’ in-school and after-school SEL work together. In their short time together they have identified concrete ways to plan and implement SEL instruction jointly rather than in silos.
One important realization that has emerged from this initiative is that building students’ social-emotional skills isn’t a one-off effort. The districts in this professional learning community see this work as essential to so many other important efforts they are engaged with, such as teaching to Common Core standards, implementing systems to encourage positive behavior, creating a supportive school climate, and meeting many other goals in their Local Control and Accountability Plans.
A new paper by the Partnership for Children & Youth called Finding Common Ground articulates clearly how social-emotional learning links with these and other reform initiatives California schools are tackling. It is a valuable resource for schools and districts wanting to jumpstart their SEL work and better align all of their strategies to support student achievement.
Just think how much more we could accomplish for kids if educators in the classroom partnered with educators supporting kids after school and in the summer – and leveraged all the learning time available to us. It will take this kind of partnership to ensure all our young people have the social-emotional skills they will need for successful futures.
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