What do K–12 schools need to do to prepare their students for adult success? This was the question that originally catalyzed the standards-and-accountability movement some 30 years ago, though it seems somehow to have gotten lost. Today the question merits revisiting, because addressing it makes a strong case for taking an integrated approach to the social, emotional, and academic development of children rather than focusing on academics in isolation.
Calls for schools to develop the “whole child” are far from new. However, as the study of education moves from a practice-based field to one that is more evidence-informed, it is becoming increasingly clear that developing students’ social-emotional skills not only has value on its own, but, when based on emerging findings from the learning sciences, also improves academic outcomes.
If they are to thrive as adults, students clearly need to acquire a body of knowledge and fundamental academic skills such as reading, writing, and quantitative understanding. Moreover, since half of the living-wage jobs today are occupied by adults with bachelor’s degrees, and most of the other half are held by those with some form of postsecondary credential (such as an associate’s degree or industry certificate), K–12 education must focus on preparing all students for successful postsecondary schooling. The demands of the knowledge economy and the goal of giving every student access to it have been the fundamental drivers of “education reform” efforts and the standards-and-accountability movement over the past three decades.
Yet it is clear today, as it was 30 years ago, that adult success requires more than academic skills. It also demands the ability to take care of oneself physically and emotionally, get along with and work with others, and continue to learn in an ever-changing world: foundational skills, it turns out, for both kindergarten and life. Employers have continually said that they seek employees who can collaborate, communicate, problem solve, and self-manage. Additionally, the social crisis of contemporary adulthood, manifested in rampant opioid addiction and a 30 percent increase in suicides since 2000, drives home the importance of emotional well-being.
This still leaves the question of how much time and emphasis K–12 schooling should devote to developing the different building blocks of adult success. Some say schools should focus on their traditional specialty—academics—and leave social and emotional development to families, houses of worship, and social institutions. There is, after all, only so much time in the school day, and the history of public education is punctuated with non-academic educational fads taking up time with little clear return.
However, this viewpoint presupposes a separation between academic progress and social-emotional development: it assumes that growth in one area is not essential or critical to progress in the other. Yet the evidence is clear that social, emotional, and academic development are interdependent. Stephanie Jones and Jennifer Kahn, in a recent synthesis of the evidence base, conclude that “decades of research . . . have illuminated that major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior. All are central to learning. Strengths or weaknesses in one area foster or impede development in others.” When educators approach these various streams of development in an integrated fashion, they become synergistic, and no tradeoffs are necessary.
The Science of Learning
A careful examination of what we know about learning illustrates this concept.
During the same 30 years that the standards-and-accountability movement grew and blossomed, learning science developed and became useful to educators. This research has shown that learning is not a “cool process” of programmable information processing. It cannot be organized to routinely occur without attention to internal motivations or external factors. Learning has social and emotional dimensions. It is a “hot process” influenced by complex and dynamic interactions of biology and environment, social interactions, human feelings and beliefs, and variable physiological and psychological reactions to environmental factors like stress and scarcity.
More specifically, several key findings from learning science drive home the importance of integrating children’s social, emotional, and academic learning.
Human cognition is both amazing and limiting. We possess tremendous abilities to visually process information and store, integrate, retain, and recall knowledge over a lifetime. We can keep in our heads more than 150 social scripts on how to interact and with whom. But, within our brains, the circuits used for executive function, which organize our actions toward completing important tasks, are shut off when we sense immediate dangers. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: if you are sitting under a tree plotting your future, it is not wise to ignore a silently approaching tiger. However, this shutdown mechanism of the brain complicates academic learning by taking a key driver of self-regulation offline when we sense real or perceived threats in our environment. Some young people feel threatened on the way to and within the very environments where we need them most ready to learn. This disequilibrium can interfere with learning.
Learning something new, or deepening our knowledge and skill in a given area, is inherently joyful and exciting and thus can provide its own motivation. Yet the process of learning takes work, and as such is often a tiring, frustrating, and time-consuming enterprise. This holds true whether one is learning to ride a bike, shoot a free throw, play a musical instrument, or perform complex mathematics.
Because learning requires work and there are limits to the human learning system, we need motivation, self-regulation, and freedom from distractions to sustain learning over time. This is why stress, scarcity, trauma, self-doubt, the day-to-day struggles of living in poverty, and disorderly classrooms all push back against learning.
More-active learning is more-successful learning, and it is often more “social” learning, too. To learn effectively with and from others, we need to know how to read social cues and communicate our level of understanding. This in turn requires an ability to develop trust with teachers and fellow students.
Throughout the elementary and secondary school years, children’s brains are still developing. Thus, maximizing their learning is not simply about “filling up” the brain, but also about shaping it. A student’s emotions play a key role here, as emotions can both limit and enhance brain-shaping experiences. A recent publication of the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, titled The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, states that “emotional well-being promotes health, brain development, and optimal learning, while chronic and excessive stress and loneliness are toxic to brain development.” Students have more cognitive resources available for focusing on instruction when they know how to mediate the intensity and duration of their emotions.
In this 2018 report, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and colleagues express how these core findings from learning science come together: “Productive learning environments attend to the trade-off between plasticity and efficiency in brain development, strategically offering activities that encourage flexible thinking along with those that encourage mastery of necessary building-block skills and knowledge,” they write.
Focus on the Student
Taken together, advances in learning science tell us that to maximize student learning, we need to recognize that the learning process is driven by an integration of academic, social, and emotional skills. If we shift our lens from instruction (what adults deliver) to learning (what students need to do), and understand the human limitations to learning, we can clearly see the fundamental roles played by motivation; self-regulation; the ability to mediate the impact of environmental, physiological, and psychological challenges; social interaction; and positive relationships. These are the outcomes at the heart of social-emotional development. Thus, a learning-science perspective argues that academic achievement can improve faster with a whole-child approach rooted in the integration of social, emotional, and academic development. As measurement tools continue to evolve, and as interest in social-emotional learning grows, we are starting to see emergent evidence of this, most notably in numerous growth-mindset studies and in work by CORE, a partnership of eight California school districts that collaborate on new learning and teaching practices.
The exciting news is that this means there are still considerable tools at our disposal to realize the standards-and-accountability movement’s goal of ensuring that all students achieve sufficient levels of knowledge and academic skill. The challenge here is similar to that inherent in the learning process—that is, realizing the potential of an integrated social, emotional, and academic development approach to student success requires work. Teachers will need to learn how to teach differently from the way they were taught. At the heart of this will be building the understandings and skills needed to create learning environments that are academically challenging and socially and emotionally supportive. Helping teachers acquire these new skills will in turn require a more substantial and sustained commitment to evidence-based professional learning opportunities than many school districts have traditionally demonstrated. We need to keep expanding our understanding of the optimal points along the K–12 continuum for developing key social-emotional skills in order to be most effective and maximize the impact on academic outcomes.
Finally, school-accountability systems will need to be retooled. Just as we have come to learn that it is ineffective to limit the feedback we give students to point-in-time summative judgments (ranging from “Congratulations, excellent work, keep it up” to “Disappointing; you need to work harder next time”), so it is for feedback provided to schools. Basing accountability on student scores from a single annual test in just two academic subjects provides guidance that is too limited to foster school improvement. There is more work ahead to determine how to incorporate learning science and social-emotional measures into an integrated feedback system that helps identify the actions needed for schools to make progress.
Focusing on the “whole child” by taking an integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development does not have to come at the cost of lessening the focus on academics or decreasing vigilance regarding school outcomes. Quite the opposite. This approach is a necessary driver of both kinds of learning. Thus, the choice between academic gains or social-emotional improvements is a false one. If we make full use of our knowledge of human learning and development, we can create scholastic environments that tap into the rich symbiosis that connects students’ cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions—and we will come closer to providing schools in which every student develops the full range of skills needed for adult success.
This is part of a forum, “Should Schools Embrace Social and Emotional Learning?.” For an alternate take, see “A Prevalence of ‘Policy-Based Evidence-Making’,” by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst.
This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:
Balfanz, R. Whitehurst, G.J. (2019). Should Schools Embrace Social and Emotional Learning? Debating the merits and costs. Education Next, 19(3), 68-74.
Last updated April 2, 2019