Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource
Fifth-graders at Haight Elementary School in Alameda collaborate to develop social and emotional skills.

Researchers, educators, parents, teachers and youth advocates across the country increasingly agree that learning and practicing social and emotional skills in tandem with academics is crucial to K-12 student success.

That’s according to a report issued this week by The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development.

The report marks the commission’s mid-way mark in its effort to explore “how to make social, emotional, and academic development part of the fabric of every school” and offer a road map “toward a future where every child receives the comprehensive support needed to succeed in school, in our evolving 21st century workplace, and in life.”

Social and emotional skills include the ability to understand and regulate one’s emotions, practice compassion and develop healthy trusting relationships. There is growing consensus that those abilities — imparted through stand-alone activities and integrated into academic lessons through collaborations and project-based learning — are key to positive school climates.

“Students are most successful when they’re given the opportunity to learn in environments that recognize that these skills are mutually reinforcing and are central to learning,” according to the report, titled “How Learning Happens: Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.”

A year or so into a two-year process, the commission concludes that social and emotional development is intertwined “in the brain and in behavior” with cognitive, linguistic and academic development and is equally central to “learning and success.”

Stand-alone activities that teach students to develop such skills are a good start and have been linked to improved behavior and academic performance. But the report notes that more work is needed to integrate that learning into academic instruction and “the day-to-day work and rhythms of the classroom.”

“If you believe in whole-child development, then you need scaffolding for social and emotional learning concepts,” said Commissioner Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. “Just as you scaffold learning concepts when teaching math, you need to scaffold learning opportunities when you’re explicitly helping students develop social and emotional competencies.”

The commission stresses the need to take each student’s culture, background and experiences into account and provide resources to kids who’ve experienced trauma.

Not surprisingly, it also points out that teachers and administrators need to work on their own social and emotional skills in order to impart them.

“It’s hard for someone to give what they don’t have,” Carstarphen said. “You can’t assume that, just because they’re adults, they have the skills and the mindsets they need to model healthy behaviors and understand the core knowledge of social-emotional learning. It’s a wonderful thing when adults and kids can grow together.”

Social and emotional development should also be woven into teacher training programs and professional development, the report said.

So, what’s left to do?

“I think the ‘why’ we’re doing this is really, really clear,” said Jorge Benitez, a commission member and former CEO of North America for Accenture. “At this point, it’s much more about the ‘who,’ ‘when,’ and ‘how.’”

The 25-member commission is led by co-chairs Linda Darling Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and a professor emeritus at Stanford University; Governor John Engler, immediate past president of the Business Roundtable and former Governor of Michigan; and Tim Shriver, co-founder and chair of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and chairman of the Special Olympics.

The commission draws on the expertise of sub-panels of scientists, educators, youth, parents and other community organizations. It will be gathering input throughout 2018 from its own stakeholders and anyone “working to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development.” It is seeking the feedback through an online survey.

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