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Social-Emotional-Learning Researchers Seek Educator Input

By Evie Blad Education Week July 18, 2017
 

In the increasingly popular fields of student engagement, social-emotional learning, and school climate, educators and researchers sometimes feel like they are working in totally different worlds.

While researchers tout long-term studies that show economic and academic benefits of such efforts, teachers say they sometimes struggle to apply the findings in classrooms.

And while many education leaders and policymakers espouse great enthusiasm for teaching students how to learn through problems and to resolve conflicts, they sometimes fail to see the nuance and limitations in existing research. That means some who buy in to programs pitched as silver bullets may end up without meaningful solutions.

So, when a national organization set out to craft a research agenda for what it calls social, emotional, and academic development of students—which encompasses issues related to students' mindsets, relationships, and engagement in the classroom—organizers sought to build a bridge between the two worlds, inviting both educators and scientists to the table to discuss what excites them, what challenges them, and what should come next.

"Researchers are often quite removed from the actual [school] setting," said Michael McGarrah, a research and policy associate for the Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. "It's difficult unless you're doing the actual practitioner's work day to day to have the full insight into all of their considerations."

While many researchers work with schools to carry out studies on specific interventions, they may be less familiar with how other schools apply the findings after they are published, educators say.

Shaping a Research Agenda

 

The national commission, made up of current and former leaders from the worlds of education, policy, government, and business, has an ambitious agenda to try to define commonalities in the emerging and overlapping fields of social-emotional learning, deeper learning, mindsets, and student engagement.

Among the commission's projects is the research agenda, which organizers hope will aid academics and philanthropic organizations as they find new directions for the work. The commission convened a panel of scientists who study such issues as engagement, social-emotional development, student attendance, and economics to help draft research recommendations. To ensure that their thinking incorporates classroom-level concerns, the scientists reached out to the commission's panel of educators who are interested in incorporating a more "whole child" approach into their work.

They started small: Over the course of a few weeks, educators and scientists broke up into six pairs and spent an hour on the phone with each other, answering questions and identifying challenges in their work.

For example, Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, called Josh Garcia, the deputy superintendent of the Tacoma, Wash., schools, who has led the effort in his district to incorporate nonacademic factors into its accountability system.

Robert Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the Everyone Graduates Center, spoke with David Adams, the director of social-emotional learning at Urban Assembly, a network of public schools in New York City.

Recognizing the interest in their work, scientists in these fields are increasingly taking on more public roles to share and explain their insights and concerns, but the phone calls organized by the commission allowed for more personal conversations. The pairs tackled topics ranging from how to ensure that social-emotional learning isn't seen as just a "fad," how to communicate its importance to families and community members, and how schools should measure the results of their work in a way that is accurate, consistent, and useful for teachers.

Researchers have cautioned educators not to lean on using measures of students' social and emotional skills for high-stakes purposes like placement, teacher evaluation, and accountability. They say such measures are still being refined so they won't be prone to bias and inaccurate or inconsistent results.

But some ability to observe, document, and track results would help teachers as they implement new programs in fields that are still developing, Adams said.

Not Another Trendy Program

 

Some of his schools track and report teachers' observations of students' relationships and behaviors. While researchers often explore large population changes over time, educators need tools to track smaller changes within a school year so they can see if they are affecting students in positive ways, Adams said.

That might help convince educators that social-emotional learning and student-engagement work aren't trendy programs that are quickly adopted and discarded, he said.

"Every three to five years, there's a new shift in education that really grabs the attention," Adams told Balfanz. "It's difficult to maintain focus on the not-sexy things that really move the needle around achievement."

Other conversations focused on the tendency among researchers to home in on very narrow ideas, such as empathy, persistence, or learning through failure. It's difficult for educators to navigate all that research and chart a path for their own schools and classrooms, participants said.

In her call, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, said social-emotional-learning research also needs to be sensitive to cultural, developmental, and geographic contexts.

"Even when there are things that seem to be working really great, we can't just copy them," she said. Rather, researchers need to help educators devise larger strategies for creating their own approaches that work with their students and schools, she said.

The panel of scientists will continue to meet, using their conversations with educators as they make recommendations for the commission about exactly what questions they should be asking in the future.

Decades of research have shown that students' emotional and social development is tied to their success in the classroom, McGarrah said, and there is building enthusiasm for social-emotional learning. The commission, he said, hopes a research agenda will help build on that momentum.

"There's a lot of confidence about where we stand," McGarrah said, "but saying where we need to go is a tall order."

 

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

 

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A Journey Towards Trauma-Informed Schools

Learn how the Partnership for Resilience, originally known as the “Southland Education and Health Initiative,” is working with teachers, administrators, and health care professionals to meet the needs of students impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). This second installment of a series shows how dedicated and caring educators in Calumet Park School District 132 boosted parent engagement, expanded dental care for students, and moved toward becoming “trauma-informed.” In schools where 90% of students are low-income, out of school suspensions were reduced significantly, expulsions eliminated, and strong connections forged between teachers, administrators, union leaders, and students.

Developing and Leading Positive School Culture

 

Change is hard…like really hard.  When was the last time you arrived at work and you were enthusiastically greeted by staff members that were asking for change?  Chances are that it has been a while.  Let’s face it, many folks are creatures of habit and moving change forward, even with its staff driven, can be a challenge.  Just like in the classroom we have the folks that pick it up new ideas and run while others watch off to the side and others that are the little turtles that just need additional time.  All of this remains true when you talk about leading and developing a positive school culture.  It is hard work.  From my experience, leading and developing a positive school culture is a long challenging process and it has its ups and down.  Even with the guidance on school climate from experts in the field implementing it is another story as each building, staff, and community has different characteristics that make the implementation process slightly different.  Considering all of this, here are the points I focus on and offer as advice for those seeking to develop and lead a positive school culture.

Have Patience

Rome wasn’t built in a day! I understand this statement but it still makes me cringe as I think about the lost time in moving slow when it comes to doing the right work for kids.  However, I do understand the importance of having patience and that culture takes a while to develop.  In fact, changing the culture of a building takes multiple years, especially if you are making a large shift in practice.  If you have teachers that have been there for 10+ years, this process tends to take longer than if you had a large number of new teachers.  As much as I would like, culture takes time as staff, students, and families need to spend a significant amount of time together to get used to each other and the new set of expectations.  It is through time that the new expectations will start to become engrained in the daily work everyone does and it becomes accepted.  So if you find yourself wanting to rush the process of having a deeply engrained culture of serving the whole child with high expectations…take a deep breath as you need to be ready for the long haul.        

Be Involved

You can’t change a culture of a building through emails and by hanging out in your office.  Leaders must get out and be present in the building.   The same goes when it comes to committee meetings, data team conversations, and professional development that staff attend.  You have to be involved so you can help connect the work being done back to the culture shift going on within the building.  When you opt out of these opportunities to be present and involved in the building, you are missing out on opportunities to help reinforce the direction everyone is working towards.

Communicate

Elementary teachers love to talk and connect with each other.  Even if you aren’t at the elementary level, I would still highly recommend communicating continuously about the culture of the building and the direction the building is going.  Just like the old art of storytelling, sharing the story of your building and how these new cultural norms impact students makes an incredible difference.  One of my favorite ways to help bring the conversations to life is by highlighting a particular student and the positive impact the changes have made on them.

Revisit Frequently

As a new building culture is being developed, it has to be at the forefront of the conversation and focus of all staff.  This is something that has to be visited throughout the year, particularly in the beginning of the year as you work to acclimate new staff to the building.  During these times, I would also encourage you to share the why the need for and the direction of the culture shift.  One of the exercises we did with staff at the start of the year was to create a large timeline of the history of our building.  This allowed the new staff members to see firsthand the changes and needs for a culture shift within the building.

Reflect

As with anything, you need to stop and reflect to examine if your actions match with the words and actions of the building.  Over the past few years, my staff have become really good at this.  They have even become skilled at calling me out if my actions or words don’t align.  While some individuals might shy away from this accountability or blunt conversation, I really appreciate it as it holds me to our common agreements and the hard work we are doing to move students forward.

Cue Into Climate

Finally, I encourage folks to be mindful of the daily climate of the building.  While climate is very different than the culture of a building, you can get at reinforcing the culture of the building by addressing the climate.  A simple climate survey will help one examine the climate and perhaps identify some underlying culture issues.  For example, an unhealthy climate characteristic or belief a building has can become rooted into the culture if left unchecked.

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26.

http://inservice.ascd.org/developing-and-leading-positive-school-culture/

As social and emotional learning expands, educators fear the 'fizzle'

 

Four minutes late to his first class of the day, an 11th-grade boy at Oakland’s Skyline High School swung into his seat and blurted an explanation: “I had a bad nosebleed last night.” His U.S. history teacher, Jimmy Barbuto, looked up. Being late to class can wreck the morning flow at school, provoking confrontations and derailing lesson plans.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Barbuto replied. The remark was a nod to their shared humanity as well as an academic strategy, a tiny moment of modeling social skills that is part of a blooming movement in education known as social and emotional learning. While the term is jargon, the concept is straightforward: Help students recognize and manage their emotions so they can get excited about academics and get along with others.

The class rolled on. “Anyone doing self-management?” Barbuto asked his 28 students, who sat in rows and paid a good deal of attention, considering they were teenagers in the early morning. “Having appropriate things on the desk?”

Oakland Unified is one of hundreds of school districts in California that have adopted social skill-building in an effort to move from zero-tolerance discipline and drill-and-kill curriculum toward a more nuanced approach to the behavioral and academic needs of students. Oakland Unified has boiled down the concept to three signature teacher practices, most of them familiar to accomplished teachers: a warm welcome at the start of the day, perhaps with a morning circle depending on the age of the students; “engaging” teaching, such as encouraging students to pipe up with their opinions while learning how to listen to the opinions of others; and closing out the school day on an optimistic note by asking students to take a moment to consider what they’ve learned or someone they’ve helped today.

“There has been an explosion of interest in this work,” Emily Doolittle, a researcher at the federal National Center for Education Research, said at a panel discussion late last month of leaders in the field who contributed to a new issue of the journal The Future of Children dedicated to social and emotional learning. And with that explosion has come heightened concern among proponents about how to spare social and emotional learning from the fate of many ideas in education: the fizzle.

“Watch out for the quick fix,” said Stephanie Jones, a social and emotional learning researcher at Harvard.

“In education, it seems like there’s a fad a month,” said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, which co-publishes The Future of Learning with Princeton University. “What are the crucial steps that need to take place to make sure social and emotional learning continues to advance?”

That is the question being asked by educators nationally and in California, where the California Department of Education in 2016 joined a multistate collaborative to develop guidelines for social and emotional learning. No consensus has emerged on what skills to teach or how to measure results, but interest in social and emotional learning is driven by evidence of its effectiveness, said Roger Weissberg, chief knowledge officer at the Collaborative on Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

“We have a commitment to rigorous science,” Weissberg said. But the evidence-gathering is still in progress. “We don’t have all the answers in the field,” he said.

“I worry about the fizzle a great deal,” said Stephanie Jones, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As with any initiative, over-selling is a risk – spreading the belief that social and emotional learning will fix every educational ill, Jones said. She referenced a maxim from her graduate school mentor: “Watch out for the quick fix.”

Clark McKown, a psychologist and associate professor at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, proposed that the field move to set standards for social and emotional learning and provide incentives for school districts to adopt well-tested programs. In addition, he called for teacher training programs to require courses in social and emotional learning. All of this rests on the development of an accurate way to assess whether social and emotional learning programs are helping students with academics and behavior, he said.

Those efforts are in the works at the state and national level, Weissberg said.

In the meantime, Mark Greenberg, a professor of Human Development and Psychology at Pennsylvania State University, laid out the current state of the field in a description sure to resonate with administrators struggling to get their arms around what social and emotional learning is and why schools should care about it.

The concept typically is introduced in schools “as a fragmented succession of fads or quick fixes, isolated from everyday educational practices,” Greenberg and his co-authors wrote in The Future of Children. The result, he said, is “a hodgepodge of prevention, treatment and youth-development initiatives with little direction, coordination, sustainability or impact.”

Part of the mishmash is generated by a profusion of programs that use different approaches, including videos, discussions and role-playing, to develop different and sometimes overlapping skills. In Wally’s Feeling Wheel in The Incredible Years Series program, kindergartners learn about their feelings and those of others using pictures of faces grimacing, smiling or frowning that are labeled as scared, excited, angry and more.

In the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies program, elementary school teachers promote empathy by leading a discussion about how a story character might feel, such as a girl whose family tells her they are moving to the U.S. and she will be given a new name.

And for high school students, many programs have not yet shown results, said David Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Yeager explained that teenagers need programs that don’t preach to them or imply there is something wrong with them. Instead, approaches that tap into a teenager’s desire to make a difference in the world can wake up a student’s interest, he said.

He also cited the success of a teacher mentoring program called My Teaching Partner-Secondary that helps high school teachers create “an intellectually challenging but respectful classroom.” Students who felt their intelligence was respected did a better job of following classroom rules, Yeager said.

In Oakland, the district has invested in social and emotional learning in elementary schools for years and is rolling out the concept in a few high schools, including Skyline, through teacher training. The idea is to integrate social skill building into academic instruction.

In U.S. history class, Barbuto turned to the question on the overhead projector screen: “Who was responsible for the Battle of Little Big Horn?” As the discussion progressed, Barbuto jotted highlights on the screen. He noted that Native American tribes spoke dozens of languages, and then he segued into a tip that at once promoted learning, self-awareness and planning. “For me, because I’m a visual learner, taking notes is important,” Barbuto casually remarked. “If I took notes, it meant I had to do way less studying in the future and it was easier to write the essay.”

Pens moved in notebooks. Message received.

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Jane Meredith Adams covers social and emotional learning and student wellbeing.

 

Brains in Pain Cannot Learn!

Educators want nothing more than for our students to feel successful and excited to learn, and to understand the importance of their education. We want our students' attention and respect to match our own. I believe that most if not all of our students desire the same, but walking through our classroom doors are beautifully complex youth who are neurobiologically wired to feel before thinking.

Carrying In

Educators and students are carrying in much more than backpacks, car keys, conversations, partially-completed homework, and outward laughter. Buried deep in the brain's limbic system is an emotional switching station called the amygdala, and it is here that our human survival and emotional messages are subconsciously prioritized and learned. We continually scan environments for feelings of connectedness and safety. I am learning that the students who look oppositional, defiant, or aloof may be exhibiting negative behavior because they are in pain and presenting their stress response.

Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders (PDF). The thinking lobes in the prefrontal cortex shut down when a brain is in pain.

Trauma and the Brain

What is trauma? When we hear this word, we tend to think of severe neglect or abusive experiences and relationships. This is not necessarily true. A traumatized brain can also be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear. Trauma-filled experiences can be sudden or subtle, but the neurobiological changes from negative experiences cause our emotional brain to create a sensitized fear response. When we feel distress, our brains and bodies prioritize survival, and we pay attention to the flood of emotional messages triggering the question, "Am I safe?" We react physiologically with an irritated limbic system that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration with an excessive secretion of the neuro hormones cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies. Chronic activation of the fear response can damage other parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.

We are all neurobiologically wired for social connection and attachment to others. When children don't receive healthy connections in early development, the brain rewires and adapts just as readily to unhealthy environments. If brain development is disrupted by adversity at any age, but especially in early development (PDF), the skills of problem solving, reflection, and emotional regulation are compromised and diminished. Children and adolescents need stimulation and nurturance for healthy development and attachment. Students whose development is disrupted often walk through the doors of our schools mistrusting adults.

Prime the Brain

To learn and problem solve, we must prime the brain for engagement and feelings of safety. In recent years, there has been a significant emphasis on Common Core proficiency while teacher training has often lost sight of the impact of understanding brain development in students. The almond-shaped clusters of neurons resting deep in each temporal lobe must be quieted if learning and well-being are to be exercised and addressed. Educators too need to be aware of our brain states and subconscious emotional triggers that could throw us into a power struggle and a stress-response state as we interface with our students.

What can we do to create calm and safe brain states within ourselves and within the students who walk in with an activated fear response?

We first must understand that feelings are the language of the limbic system. When a student in stress becomes angry or shut down, he or she won't hear our words. Talking a student through any discipline procedure or thought reflection sheet in the heat of the moment is fruitless. Here are three ways to calm the stress response -- two of them through immediate action, and the third by a brief science lesson.

1. Movement

Movement is critical to learning while calming the stress and fear response. Teachers and students together could design a space, a labyrinth of sorts, where students can walk or move to relieve the irritation of the amygdale. Physical activities such as push-ups, jogging in place, jumping jacks, and yoga movements help to calm the limbic brain and bring the focus back to learning and reasoning.

2. Focused Attention Practices

Focused attention practices teach students how to breathe deeply while focusing on a particular stimulus. When we take two or three minutes a few times each day or class period and teach students how to breathe deeply, we are priming the brain for increased attention and focus. These practices might also include a stimulus such as sound, visualization, or the taste of a food. The focused attention increases an oxygenated blood and glucose flow to the frontal lobes of the brain where emotional regulation, attention, and problem solving occur.

3. Understanding the Brain

Teaching students about their amygdala and fear response is so empowering. When we understand that this biology is many thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common. A middle-school teacher and her students have named the amygdala "Amy G. Dala." By personifying this ancient, emotionally-driven structure in our brains, the students are befriending their fear responses and learning how to lessen negative emotion. We cannot always control the experiences in our lives, but we can shift how we respond, placing the science of our brains in the driver's seat of discipline!

Have you recognized students experiencing emotional pain? How have you helped them overcome this?

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/brains-in-pain-cannot-learn-lori-desautels

Making Empathy Books

Empathy books are great tools for helping children process big feelings and situations. In this video you will learn what they are and how to make them. Empathy books (along with other tools) are a core part of Echo Parenting and Education empathy-based, nonviolent parenting philosophy. Learn more at echoparenting.org. Thanks to Patricia & Mechi Lakatos for production of this video.

A boy told his teacher she can't understand him because she's white. Her response is on point.

'Be the teacher America's children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.'
 

Fifth-grade teacher Emily E. Smith is not your ordinary teacher.

She founded The Hive Society — a classroom that's all about inspiring children to learn more about their world ... and themselves — by interacting with literature and current events. Students watch TED talks, read Rolling Stone, and analyze infographics. She even has a long-distance running club to encourage students to take care of their minds and bodies.

Smith is such an awesome teacher, in fact, that she recently received the 2015 Donald H. Graves Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Writing.

It had always been her dream to work with children in urban areas, so when Smith started teaching, she hit the ground running. She had her students making podcasts, and they had in-depth discussions about their readings on a cozy carpet. 

But in her acceptance speech for her award, she made it clear that it took a turning point in her career before she really got it:

"Things changed for me the day when, during a classroom discussion, one of my kids bluntly told me I "couldn't understand because I was a white lady." I had to agree with him. I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy."

Smith knew that just acknowledging her white privilege wasn't enough.

She wanted to move beyond just empathy and find a way to take some real action that would make a difference for her students.

She kept the same innovative and engaging teaching methods, but she totally revamped her curriculum to include works by people who looked like her students. She also carved out more time to discuss issues that her students were facing, such as xenophobia and racism.

And that effort? Absolutely worth it.

As she said in her acceptance speech:

"We studied the works of Sandra Cisneros, Pam Munoz Ryan, and Gary Soto, with the intertwined Spanish language and Latino culture — so fluent and deep in the memories of my kids that I saw light in their eyes I had never seen before.

The changes Smith made in her classroom make a whole lot of sense. And they're easy enough for teachers everywhere to make:

— They studied the work of historical Latino figures, with some of the original Spanish language included. Many children of color are growing up in bilingual households. In 2007, 55.4 million Americans 5 years of age and older spoke a language other than English at home.

They analyzed the vision of America that great writers of color sought to create. And her students realized that our country still isn't quite living up to its ideals. Despite progress toward racial equality with the end of laws that enforced slavery or segregation, we still have a long way to go. Black people still fare worse than white people when it comes to things like wealth, unfair arrests, and health.

— They read excepts from contemporary writers of color, like Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes about race. Her students are reading and learning from a diverse group of writers. No small thing when they live in a society that overwhelmingly gives more attention to white male writers (and where the number of employees of color in the newspaper industry stagnates at a paltry 12%).

They read about the Syrian crisis, and many students wrote about journeys across the border in their family history for class. The opportunity particularly struck one student; the assignment touched him so much that he cried. He never had a teacher honor the journey his family made. And he was proud of his heritage for the first time ever. "One child cried," Smith shared, "and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.

Opportunities like this will only increase as the number of children from immigrant families is steadily increasing. As of 2013, almost 17.4 million children under 18 have at least one immigrant parent.

Smith now identifies not just as an English teacher, but as a social justice teacher.

Smith's successful shift in her teaching is an example for teachers everywhere, especially as our schools become increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. About 80% of American teachers are white. But as of last year, the majority of K-12 students in public schools are now children of color.

As America's demographics change, we need to work on creating work that reflects the experiences that our students relate to. And a more diverse curriculum isn't just important for students of color. It's vital for everyone.

As Smith put it, "We, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country."

 

Teachers Weave Social-Emotional Learning Into Academics

By Evie Blad 

In Susannah Young’s 2nd grade classroom, the first step in a student’s writing process isn’t a rough draft; it’s a conversation with a peer.

Students explain their ideas to a partner, respond to questions, and push each other to more fully explore their thoughts before they put them down on paper.

Young, who teaches at Oakland’s Lincoln Elementary School, developed the approach through a unusual professional development experience designed to help a cohort of Oakland teachers integrate social-emotional learning strategies into their teaching of traditional academic subjects, like reading and math. In sessions led by faculty from Mills College, a liberal arts school in Oakland, the Mills teacher scholars each select one instructional practice as a focus area, spending at least a year improving it through guided inquiry work.

Inquiry is basically a structured, reflective conversation through which listeners help guide their peers and challenge their thinking. Teachers in the cohort meet weekly with their school peers and monthly as a large group for open-ended, reflective conversations and to review student work and videos of children interacting in their classrooms.

They pay close attention to how students’ emotions and peer interactions affect their learning. For example, one teacher focused on helping students have productive conversations about math problems, developing strategies to help them talk through disagreements about how to find a solution, and how to explain their reasoning.

“I really feel like the most powerful part of it is that it’s starting with what’s happening in your classroom,” Young said. “Not what’s supposed to be happening, not what the curriculum thinks should be happening. What’s actually happening.”

Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning involves nurturing students’ interpersonal and behavioral skills through a variety of educational strategies. Around the country, more schools are experimenting with social-emotional learning, buoyed by research that correlates it with positive outcomes, like academic gains and reduced disciplinary incidents. Employers have also pointed to so-called “soft skills” as desirable traits for future employees.

Young’s inquiry work, which focused on classroom writing workshops, led her to bring more peer interactions into the writing process as a way of separating the act of conceptualizing an essay from the work of writing it out. She got the idea after she interviewed students about the purpose of the workshops and got answers revealing some students’ misunderstanding of why writing matters. “We do writing workshops to help improve our handwriting,” one boy told her.

“The purpose of writing was not clear to him,” Young said. “That really changed my thinking in a dramatic way.”

Zolboo Bayarnyam talks with a fellow student about the effects that words and acts can have during morning circle time in teacher Susannah Young’s 2nd grade class.
—Ramin Rahimian for Education Week

The process she devised improves students’ academic work, she said, and it leverages skills they’ve learned through the Oakland district’s social-emotional learning strategy, skills like how to listen, how to relate to the experiences of their peers, and how to provide feedback.

Schools that promote comprehensive social-emotional learning focus on three strategies: changing school climate through areas like discipline and family engagement, direct instruction of research-based social-emotional learning curriculum, and incorporating a social-emotional learning approach into traditional classroom work.

Districts that have committed to the strategy, including Oakland, say weaving social-emotional learning strategies into everyday classroom practices can be the most challenging. Strategies are still developing, and when the work feels like a fad, or a new, top-down mandate, teachers are less likely to “buy into it,” school leaders say.

Most teachers are also coming to classrooms from schools of education and other pre-service programs that did little to address social-emotional learning, forcing them to learn on the job, according to a recent survey of U.S. teacher-preparation programs by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

While social-emotional learning advocates emphasize concepts like prioritizing student discussions over teacher lectures, strategic thinking over a narrow focus on the correct answer, and giving students a chance to learn from their mistakes through productive failure; many teachers have never had such classroom experiences in their own K-12 educations, said Carrie Wilson, the executive director of Mills teacher scholars.

'Adult SEL'

That’s why many refer to the program’s inquiry process as “adult SEL,” the shorthand for social-emotional learning. Before teachers in the program commit to the vulnerable experience of sharing their work with their peers, they have discussions about what they need to learn and how they can help each other meet their goals, Wilson said.

“Our theory of action is that in order for adults, teachers, and principals to be able to provide certain types of learning experiences for students, they have to be able to have those experiences themselves,” she said. “When you look at the opportunities for adults in schools to really engage in that type of experience, what we hear from teachers is that they are really few and far between.”

The Mills teacher scholars program partners with Oakland and five other districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, leading cohorts of teachers who are focused on a range of academic subjects and teaching areas.

Oakland’s cohort, which focuses specifically on social-emotional learning implementation, is made up of about three K-12 teachers from each of five “learning hub schools,” including Lincoln, where district leaders are trying new strategies to improve their social-emotional learning approach.

District leaders hope those teachers, who have now participated in the Mills cohort for three years and serve as instructional leaders, will eventually be able to lead the teachers at their own schools in similar inquiry work on-site. It’s part of a larger strategy to expand a deeper understanding of social-emotional learning districtwide.

Teacher Susannah Young leads the morning circle time with her 2nd grade students at Lincoln Elementary School.
—Ramin Rahimian for Education Week

Oakland is one of 10 largely urban school districts that have partnered with the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, to implement comprehensive social-emotional learning strategies and to allow researchers to study their results. Each of those districts—which also include Atlanta, Cleveland, and Anchorage, Alaska—has taken its own approach.

Oakland created social-emotional learning standards that outline age-appropriate strategies for developing relational and cognitive skills at each grade level, from pre-K to high school. In an unusual move, those standards also apply to the adults working in its schools.

The standards focus on the five competencies that CASEL emphasizes in its definition of social-emotional learning: self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking. Every school in the district is required to adopt a research-supported social-emotional learning curriculum that teaches students about skills such as how to recognize and respond to a peer’s emotions and how to resolve conflicts.

The challenge for teachers is helping students recognize how they are using those strategies throughout the day, including in their academic work, said Sonny Kim, a program manager in the Oakland district’s office of social-emotional learning.

“We wanted to give teachers space to work this out,” he said. “In the classroom, you can think of the teacher as the unit of change. How do we support teachers in really understanding how to teach social-emotional learning? Also, how does it become part of what they do?”

Peer conversations can be a valuable tool for teachers, helping them evaluate their approach and identify successes, Kim said. And teachers can also help each other recognize their own biases and identify the learning needs of specific students, he said.

'Focal Students'

That’s especially helpful in Oakland, where a mostly white teaching staff teaches racially and ethnically diverse students, Kim said.

For example, at Lincoln Elementary School, which is located in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood, students are largely from Asian immigrant families. Traditional cultural motifs like dragons hang in the hallways, and school leaders send notes home in both English and Chinese.

Every teacher in the Mills program watches how changes in strategy affect a small group of “focal students,” to look for success. Those students may be of varying skill levels or students with particular needs, such as English-language learners.

Malia Tayabas-Kim, a Mills participant who teaches 2nd grade at Oakland’s Garfield Elementary School, chose two English-language learners and two higher-level native speakers for her focal students when she completed her first inquiry, which focused on academic discussions of books.

“I would observe them on the playground and see how can they have these conversations that go on forever about Pokémon or basketball … And I thought, how can I get them to use that in an academic setting?”

After observing their classroom discussions on video with her Mills peers, she realized she needed to help students understand what an academic conversation actually looks like, and how to ask good questions and provide feedback. She had students complete “fishbowls,” sitting in a circle around two peers to observe their discussion. And she provided “scaffolding,” posters with conversational prompts and questions.

“They could see it, hear it, practice it constantly, and internalize it,” Tayabas-Kim said.

This year, her inquiry focuses on teaching her students to ask their classmates for evidence to support their opinions. That work hones students’ academic skills of analytical thinking and reading, and it relies on social skills like how to handle disagreements and how to have constructive conversations, Tayabas-Kim said.

After students mastered asking one another for evidence, she extended the lesson further, helping them identify what makes good evidence and why they should ask for it.

 

She saw the effects of her work when she witnessed two students discussing a book called "Why Do Puddles Go Away?" The girl who read the book responded to her partner’s prompts for evidence by referring back to diagrams as she carefully explained how condensation works.

The inquiry work helped Tayabas-Kim recognize things she might not have noticed in those peer interactions, she said.

“Being able to share my inquiry, having people listen and ask questions,” she said, “has moved my thinking forward.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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