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#SELChat: 4 Next Steps for Whole Child Education

As I look at the landscape of education, particularly social-emotional learning, I agree with my colleagues David Griffith and Sean Slade from ASCD. We have made good progress with whole child education.  As Roger Weissberg of CASEL said, “In our country right now in education, we need to do a lot more ‘lumping’ and looking for the synergies.” So what’s next?

In my conversations with educators, researchers, and thought leaders, I see four emerging themes that will help us continue in improving our commitment to whole child education.

1. Culturally Relevant Approach – Being culturally relevant is more than having a multiracial group of students on the cover of our brochure. It means that we integrate the stories and experiences of different cultures within our instructional approach. This requires us to be open to conversations with students, families, and teachers about their needs and perspectives. Gone are the days when we can push an agenda without considering the input of everyone involved. Social media has torn down the fourth wall. Even major brands engage and value consumer voice. Why would it be any different in education?  

A culturally relevant approach also means more than race and nationality. We must consider the major influences in our culture, media and technology, and how they can be harnessed for good. It is time for us to lay down our weaponry against phone usage and social media and find meaningful ways to engage students with these tools. How do we inspire and challenge our students to use their knowledge and devices to create solutions?

2. Evaluation & Data – We have now reached the point where administrators are crying out for the data to prove impact. Having been in the field of SEL for over 20 years and participated in research with the U.S. Department of Education, I can tell you firsthand that change must be measured over time. To think that we can look at attendance and behavior referrals and get the whole picture of what is happening in a school or in the life of a child and then use that data punitively against the school or the child is naïve at best. Change takes time. The seeds of SEL that are planted now may not yield much result until a decade or two later. Longitudinal studies, such as the one conducted by James Heckman, show us what is possible. Again, change takes time.

Instead, we need to look at culture and climate data, such as a student’s sense of belonging, student-peer relationships, and student-teacher relationships. What does this data tell us about the additional resources in personnel and programs that need to be allocated for a particular population? This is the approach that Caroline Chase and her colleagues are taking at Austin ISD. SEL evaluation is formative, not summative.

3. Teacher Capacity – In a conversation with a district in the northeast last week, a leader shared, “We are at the very beginning of our journey. We are not sure what to do from here.” I appreciated their transparency and vulnerability. They recognized that embracing an SEL mindset and integrating that into practice will take time. My response was that it doesn’t need to be an either/or approach. Other districts with whom I’ve worked have said that they are not willing to do anything for their students until they build capacity within their teachers. While I agree that teachers need to be educated about brain research, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), trauma-informed practice, and SEL integration, this mindset shift takes time. One of the most powerful ways to learn is through experience. Therefore, I strongly advocate for a both/and approach. Provide the training and tools teachers need while also giving them opportunities for explicit instruction and integration within their classrooms along with supportive coaching. The truth is that whether you are implementing particular strategies or specific curriculum or not, SEL is already happening. By corralling the energy and efforts, you can create a common vocabulary and greater sense of community.  

Additionally, educators who embrace SEL need to be given permission to be human. In order to teach kids to identify what is going on in their heads and in their hearts, we must be willing to go there ourselves. This work is simple but not easy. It requires us to take time to listen to ourselves…to acknowledge our strengths and weakness, to face our inner demons, to get the help we need. Providing journals, offering Tap-In/Tap-Out, encouraging exercise and healthy eating, and inviting conversation are ways to support teachers on their personal journeys.

4. Family Engagement – In my experience as both an educator and a parent, what I have found is, too often, family members do not have a seat at the table.  Too many times, educators look at the family as the problem or as the wallet for funding needs. Perhaps it’s because dad is locked up in jail or by his job and mom is preoccupied with other kids or with personal concerns. Maybe the student is being raised by an auntie, uncle, or grandparents. In some cases, kids are shuffled from one home to another because of divorce. Whatever the case, our job is to accept, embrace, and empower families – whatever they look like – without judgment. Let’s motivate them to be a part of the school community in whatever way they can, rather than shaming them for not contributing to the annual PTO funding drive.

Regardless of circumstances, more often than not, families love their kids and want to give them the world. Some adults were not given the tools they need to succeed, so they are doing the best they can. What would happen if we came around these families with support and encouragement – GED programs, food pantries, entrepreneur centers, childcare? What changes would happen in the culture and climate of the school if parents were engaged in these meaningful ways?

The school has become the epicenter of the community. Therefore, we must do all we can to promote a healthy lifestyle for students, educators, and families.

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