Social and Emotional Learning in Action

I taught sixth grade in Austin Independent School District before working in education policy. It’s hard to be a sixth grader as it is, but some kids have even more trouble fitting in and making connections with others. I remember three students in particular: a devout Muslim boy who recently immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan; a girl who was being raised by her gay uncle; and a girl whose mother was a lesbian and a single parent. These students—and their guardians—all came to me looking for guidance and empathy because they struggled with their peers. I could provide empathy and much needed support, but I didn’t know how to teach my students how to show empathy or build positive relationships with one another.

Like me, all teachers work to meet the social and emotional needs of their students. Teachers problem-solve on a daily basis to ensure that students have the social and emotional learning (SEL) skills required to be successful in school, such as: managing emotions, setting and achieving positive goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining positive relationships and making responsible decisions. (For more, review competencies and frameworks from CASEL, Turnaround for Children and Strive Together). These are the SEL skills all students need—not just so that they can be better at sixth grade math—but so that they can grow to become fulfilled, productive and engaged adults.

At Education First, we’ve helped teachers and school districts to improve SEL implementation with support from NoVo Foundation and others. There is a growing movement of leaders joining in this work, including a National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development hosted by the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program.

We’re inspired by the changes we’ve seen in districts and classrooms around the country. In a new publication, Social and Emotional Learning: Why Students Need It. What Districts Are Doing About It, Education First has compiled SEL success stories from three leading school districts—Anchorage School District (AK), Bridgeport Public Schools (CT) and Sacramento City Unified School District (CA). The publication explores six key implementation questions with recommendations based on these districts’ approaches and three in-depth case studies that describe the challenges and successes each city is experiencing with SEL implementation. Most importantly, integrating SEL into academic strategy (e.g., standards and observation rubrics) isn’t just good practice for instruction; it also weaves SEL into the fabric of the district.

The real challenge is implementing SEL in classrooms like mine. Recognizing that teachers are the true SEL experts and innovators, NoVo Foundation created an Innovation Fund to seed teacher-led projects that foster SEL in students in grades K-12. In August 2016, the fund gave innovation awards to 23 individual teachers and teams of teachers in 14 states.

These winning teachers gathered this week to share their innovations, improve their work in the classroom and gain inspiration from their peers. These teachers work across all subject areas and grade levels and most serve in high-poverty or low-performing schools. The winning proposals include projects with a focus on art, student heritage and family engagement—pushing to fully integrate SEL in daily classroom practice. You can follow these teachers at #SELinAction.

These are the kinds of discussions, resources and support that would have helped me create a more inclusive sixth grade classroom. The field is much farther along than when I was a teacher, and I’m inspired by these teachers and the many others at work every day to put SEL into practice.

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