By Chad d’Entremont, Ph.D
Preparing today’s students for life after graduation must extend beyond academics. In an ever-changing global economy, employers want workers who can think critically, solve problems and adapt quickly. As more and more jobs become automated, ones that require both technical and interpersonal skills are still in demand.
Teaching our students reading, writing and arithmetic simply is not enough anymore — they need to learn persistence, patience and compassion too.
A growing body of evidence points to the importance of teaching children how to manage their emotions and behaviors. Known as social and emotional learning (SEL), the development of these noncognitive skills, like self-motivation and grit, is linked to better academic performance, higher college retention rates and increased employment and wages. These abilities lead to improved health and well-being as well, including a lower risk of substance abuse, obesity and criminal activity.
In sum, evidence shows that helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their impulses, and learn to be empathetic improves their ability to learn while preventing destructive behaviors. A focus on social and emotional learning is a key to closing achievement gaps and ensuring college and career readiness.
While Massachusetts leads the nation in traditional academic subjects, we are lagging behind when it comes to policies that help our students develop socially and emotionally.
Recent research from my organization, the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, looks at how other states and some local districts are prioritizing social and emotional learning. Kansas, for example, made SEL a statewide priority, creating standards to help guide student development. Here in Massachusetts, districts like Fall River, Gardner and Reading have robust SEL policies in place, and Boston Public Schools recently hired an assistant superintendent of social emotional learning and wellness to focus entirely on nonacademic skills. In schools throughout the Commonwealth, many teachers have long incorporated SEL into their classrooms and believe in the benefits of educating the whole child.
Despite this promising work, not enough is being done, systemically, to educate children beyond academics. A recent study of nearly 150,000 middle and high school students indicated that only 29 percent of students think their school supports the development of social and emotional skills. Another recent survey found a majority of Massachusetts business leaders had difficulty finding local graduates with workplace-ready skills, like those developed through social and emotional learning opportunities.
Progress is being made in individual classrooms and districts, but systems and policies have not kept up. Social and emotional learning needs to be integrated into the Commonwealth’s strategic plan and vision. While individual districts may be in the best position to implement programs, state-level support will signal the importance of this work and foster local innovation. Setting policies to support SEL, centralizing resources and securing funding will give districts the ability to incorporate SEL into their schools, tailoring programs to fit their communities and building on existing programs that are working.
We need a new vision for education in the Commonwealth. One that educates the whole child for the 21st century. Expanding social and emotional learning in schools is an opportunity to prepare students for the workforce, close achievement gaps and address the learning needs of each and every child.
There are challenges to making SEL part of school for all students, but the work that lies ahead is well worth the potential benefits of truly preparing students for lifelong success.
Chad d’Entremont is the executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy.