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Why SEL is Here to Stay

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Thanks to an increased focus on social and emotional learning, we’re witnessing an interesting convergence among education, business, scientific, and local communities.

 

In the education world, SEL is about preparing our young people to go out into the world as healthy, caring, community-minded adults. It’s about creating safe and creative environments in schools so our kids can flourish. It’s about providing supports and compassion to all kids. Roughly four out of every 10 Delaware public school students are now living in poverty. And when poverty is paired with issues like violence and addiction, it can not only impact a child’s ability to learn, but weigh heavily on their family and educators.

 

Brain science is telling us that SEL is foundational to learning. We learn not by just being exposed to information, but by interacting with peers and teachers, by speaking, by reading the listener’s facial expression, and adapting. It’s this process of volleying back and forth that builds our understanding of the world.

 

We also know that the opposite is true. The absence of these interactions (and/or the introduction of high levels of stress and trauma) can actually adversely affect how a child’s brain grows. Experts are finding that these social and emotional factors can have lifelong impacts on our health and income. There is even promising research showing that children can overcome challenging circumstances with the right support from caring adults.

That’s why the business community is invested. Over the next eight years, Delaware will hire or replace around 30 percent of its workforce. The next generation of our workforce is on the way. So it’s up to us to provide them with not only the academic and technical skills, but those less tangible skills like communication, problem-solving, drive, and persistence. That’s all a part of SEL. So too are the “people skills” that are needed to work in a complex environment. Employers tell us that they can teach the technical skills, but these 21st century skills are critical—and much more difficult to teach in adults.

 

So whether you call it “soft skills” or “trauma-informed care” or “school climate” or “growth mindset” or any of the other terms we might use to talk about this work, SEL is a big umbrella, and we hope you’ll join us to make this idea a reality for all of Delaware’s students. It really is up to us as a community to determine the path forward. We know SEL can’t be a top-down edict. It has to come from genuine engagement and collaboration. As a community, we need to expand our thinking and work together to try new, inclusive approaches.

 

As a state, we need to expand our definition of student success. To get on the same page, we need a common understanding of what we actually mean when we say “SEL,” and how SEL can be used to support students. It’s why Rodel spearheaded A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware, a report that focuses on the efforts underway across Delaware to support students, families, and educators in developing their SEL skills.

 

It’s also why we gathered around 100 community members together this month to put our heads together to begin to discern how we can build meaningful efforts in a given school or even statewide. We didn’t anticipate coming out of that morning with clear consensus but some common themes, work underway, and next steps emerged. Ultimately, we wanted to connect unlikely partners, nonprofit leaders with healthcare providers and CEOs with classroom teachers, and to plant the seeds for innovation.

 

Attendees split into groups and discussed a range of topics. The teams covered everything from out-of-school supports to cultural competency, and they came up with some solid next steps:

 

  • Building broader awareness around SEL and how it impacts kids
  • Creating more mental health supports for students, both inside schools and in the community, with schools and local nonprofits and healthcare providers serving as conduits
  • Professional development and trauma training for educators, educators in-training, and community members

 

But the strongest and most consistent message was the need for deep and genuine community engagement. This will take creativity and passion, and not every effort will work. But we know that that’s what it will take. This needs to be built school by school and community by community.

 

It seems like a simple ingredient, but it’s a crucial one.

 

There will be opportunities in early 2019 to get involved and lend your perspective. Groups like the Rodel Teacher Council will be gathering input from communities to help inform a statewide framework along with national partners like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Local leaders ranging from First Lady Tracy Quillen Carney to Delmarva Power CEO Gary Stockbridge are engaging educators and thought-leaders to forge our collective next steps. In the meantime:

 

The more we reach across our fences and talk about SEL through the networks of schools and community centers and government agencies and healthcare providers, we start to see how all our work might fit together into a more comprehensive approach.

Civics 101: From SNL to DCF

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On the heels of the midterm elections, I was reminded of what divides us. In  the subsequent weeks, I was reminded of what brings us together.

 

While the election results painted a picture of a nation divided, we all breathed a healthy, collective sigh of relief knowing  the constant barrage of negative campaign ads were subsiding. And as I sit here today, I feel optimistic about our ability to come together.

 

Two examples.

 

A couple of weeks ago, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson poked fun at the appearance of Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL and Republican representative-elect in Texas, who happens to wear an eyepatch. The joke—which was roundly criticized online—could have made for another flashpoint in our ever-growing culture wars; click bait for those of us who thrive on controversy between the left and right.

 

But instead, Crenshaw stepped back, and on Veterans Day weekend, he appeared on SNL to return some pot-shots at Davidson and to make a larger point about “never forgetting” those who have served, including Davidson’s dad.

 

 

In an opinion letter he wrote to the Washington Post, Crenshaw said, “…people too often attack not just an idea, but also the supposed intent behind the idea.” His goal, to help create a more civil society where those of differing opinions can exchange those ideas without demonizing their opponent. Novel concept.

 

And just last night, I got a chance to attend a Delaware Community Foundation (DCF) event and hear Robert Putnam, the author of several books about the health of our democracy, the most recent being the New York Times bestseller, “Our Kids.”

 

From the Baby Grand in Wilmington, Putnam laid out in stark terms the growing divide between those on the right and the wrong side of the tracks—the  rich and the poor—and  made a compelling case for why we as a community need to think of all kids as our kids. While the data on his various “scissor graphs” painted a picture in which those who are poor (and predominantly black and Hispanic) are facing increasingly high hills to climb to get out of poverty, I left inspired to act more deeply in our local community.

 

The mix of people and the energy in the room was combustible. I left that experience ready to roll up my sleeves and double down on the civil society we want to create, right here. It’s a passion that’s shared by DCF’s president and CEO Stuart Comstock-Gay, who wrote in the News Journal last week, “There’s an incredible revitalized energy in Wilmington right now. New businesses are opening. Job opportunities are emerging.  The city’s reputation is growing among entrepreneurs nationwide. Opportunity abounds. As a community, and for the good of our community, we need to ensure that everybody at least has a chance to get in on this excitement and growth.”

 

So, thanks SNL and DCF for helping me lift my head above the noise.

Why We Need to Dig Deep on Social-Emotional Learning Together

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Close your eyes for a moment and think about one of your favorite teachers from grade school. What do you remember? Chances are, you remember as much about how they taught as what they taught. You remember that classroom’s environment and how that teacher made you feel. Inspired. Energized. Safe. Creative.

 

As we’ve written about before in this space, social and emotional learning (SEL) isn’t a new thing. We heard about the need to look more holistically at the development of our young people when the Vision Coalition spoke to 4,000 Delawareans during the creation of Student Success 2025 back in 2014.

 

SEL is something that great teachers have been doing instinctively for generations. But it’s fair to say that it wasn’t until more recently that cognitive science sharpened our definition of SEL and reinforced the need for a broader vision of learning that’s as foundational as our traditional academic learning.

 

What’s new? Given that we were seeing pockets of work on SEL cropping up throughout the state and that nine out of 10 respondents to our 2017 Rodel Teacher Council survey said schools should place more emphasis on SEL, we launched what we believe is the most comprehensive statewide landscape analysis of SEL in the country. Later in the summer and fall, we’ll work with the community to unpack what we found and hope that it helps accelerate the good work already started in classrooms statewide.

 

Why now? SEL’s reemergence into the spotlight in recent years is a response to the rapidly evolving world that our young people will soon inherit. For years employers have told us that too many new employees lack the “people skills” needed to work in a complex environment. Meanwhile rapid shifts in our economy exacerbated the income divide, leading to roughly four out of every 10 Delaware public school students now living in poverty. And when poverty is paired with issues like violence and addiction, it can not only impact a child’s ability to learn, but weigh heavily on the teachers and administrators, too. Adults inside the school deserve thoughtful, comprehensive social emotional skill development, which in turn can lead to culturally responsive and engaging places to teach and to learn.

 

My child is in kindergarten, and I tell her teacher that I care less about whether she can read and more about whether she plays nicely with others and is a good friend. Academic skills will come, but SEL is the foundation for being a good person.Delaware Parent

 

What’s next? Core academics are and always will be central and vital to the educational experience. But what we’ve come to realize is that skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, empathy, and creativity are not just nice to have, they are foundational skills our students need in order to be successful in the classroom and in life.

 

If we want our young people to go out into the world healthy, caring, and able to respond to a fast-paced, global society—we need to embed SEL into our schools to meet the needs of all students, with particular attention to the unique needs of students of color, English learners, and low-income students. If we, as a state, are serious about ensuring that our learning environments are safe and welcoming places for all students to grow, learn, and thrive, we need to openly discuss and address Delaware’s, and our nation’s, long and continuing history of racial inequity, and the opportunities for SEL to advance equity in our schools. As the report notes, educators need support to understand and affirm students’ and families’ backgrounds and cultural heritages, and acknowledge and address the impact of race, racism, and implicit bias in education.

 

Moving forward, together. At this stage in the game, people in and around education, nationally, and within Delaware, agree that SEL is important. But as we found out in our research, there are dozens of definitions and interpretations of what it actually means, how it manifests inside classrooms, or how we can quantify it.

 

We heard loud and clear that we need to get on the same page. As a state, we need to expand our definition of student success. We need a common understanding of what we actually mean when we say “SEL,” and how SEL can be used to support students.

 

A Broader Vision of Student Success: Insights and Opportunities for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware focuses on the efforts underway across Delaware to support students, families, and educators in developing their SEL skills.

 

(Members of the Rodel Teacher Council also weighed in this month with a new policy brief. Creating a Common Language for Social and Emotional Learning in Delaware urges leaders to provide a stronger framework for integrating SEL into academic development.)

 

We offer this report to shine a light on the current SEL landscape in Delaware and help policymakers, educators and partners in the education, government, healthcare, nonprofit, and business sectors make decisions and investments to strengthen the work that’s underway supporting social and emotional development.

 

How we did it. While Rodel kicked this project off, it wouldn’t have been possible without the shared financial and intellectual partnership of the Arsht-Cannon Fund, Christina Care Health System, the Delaware Community Foundation, and Nemours Children’s Health Care System, as well as our Steering Committee of local stakeholders.

 

Education First and Edge Research led the data collection and analysis. The research that led to these findings included a broad range of surveys, interviews, and engagements with many school, district, and community leaders, and site visits to a variety of Delaware schools spanning all three counties. To ensure that their research rung true to those working with Delaware’s young people every day, our Steering Committee worked with Education First to provide feedback on their findings along the way.

 

Our researchers spent time in public schools across Delaware, and observed a variety of rich social and emotional learning in action: educators helping students recognize, understand and express their emotions, and develop and practice strategies to regulate those emotions when needed. They saw teachers focused on building strong relationships and helping students develop strategies to work together and solve problems, including by persisting through challenges and learning from failures. (For more examples of SEL work underway in Delaware, click here.)

 

But more pressingly, we found we need to co-construct what SEL means for our children with their parents and the community. While the definitions, expectations, and measures can be informed by academia, they need to be shaped and informed by meaningful engagement with parents, students, and educators—early and often.

 

In addition, we need to expand partnerships between schools and health services, mental health facilities, and community non-profits to ensure students and families have the supports they need.

To truly succeed in the future, students will need more than just core academic knowledge… To tackle tomorrow’s problems and excel in the jobs of the future, students will need skills and attributes like creativity, flexibility, and curiosity… As the social and environmental challenges in our communities grow, our children will need to be more empathetic and innovative in their problem-solving.Student Success 2025, Vision Coalition of Delaware

 

Now the real work begins. We hope this report serves as a springboard for those conversations and subsequent action. Our hope is that building a common framework and language around SEL will help practitioners and parents change the learning experience for our kids. We also heard that this SEL work needs to inform how we train and support educators. In fact, we hope that it inspires teachers to experiment, innovate, and work together to figure out how to continually get better at addressing students’ needs. We hope school leaders will see new opportunities to build community partnerships, as well as curated curriculum and tools to give SEL a stronger backbone and so teachers can build off of one another’s good work.

 

Addressing these challenges would benefit from deep, sustained collaboration across schools and with a range of nonprofit, health, social service, government, and mental health supports. In Delaware, we know that kind of collaboration is possible. Stay tuned for more opportunities this summer and fall to share your ideas and take action. Let’s dig in together.

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