JULY 18, 2018 / by CHELSEY ERWIN

Social & Emotional Learning: The Missing Link to Driving Student Academic Performance.

Would you rather your child be smart or kind? A good student or a good person? The choice is hard for a reason, because you should not have to make that choice. Today’s students have been struck by a social and emotional learning epidemic. Their character development is unsupported, which decreases their academic performance. The problem lies in the gap between the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL), and the lack of understanding it. As a classroom teacher, I’d like to suggest a new, innovative program that may be the missing link.


Social & Emotional Learning

What is it?

Social-emotional learning is the process through which we understand and effectively apply the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate our social and emotional environment. This includes: how to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Social and emotional learning has been widely accepted as a unique part of education. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. You will find social-emotional learning taking place as explicit instruction or embedded within the subject matter. You will also find that educators are required to teach these skills, without being first educated about SEL themselves.


Why is it important?

The skills that make-up social-emotional learning are the skills that matter wherever you go. SEL skills constitute the majority of career-readiness skills, like impulse control, communication, assertiveness, and more. SEL also affects a student’s employability, self-esteem, relationships, and civic and community engagement. Clearly, SEL is more far reaching and foundational than learning about trigonometric equations!

Imagine eliminating one skill from SEL, for example, managing emotions. Now imagine Jimmy, a 14-year-old student who has never been taught how to manage his emotions. Thus, another crumpled up test remains unfinished, laying in the trash. And another ‘A’ potential is thrown out with it. You can teach Jimmy the material a thousand times, but if he never develops the social-emotional skill of managing his emotions, he will never reach his academic potential.

Research using a nine-country analysis shows a positive correlation between SEL and positive behavior, academic achievement, and healthy life choices. The research indicates that there are even some skills that map across all cultures such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, and sociability. These skills then predict college completion, job attainment, health, and civic engagement. Therefore, social-emotional skills are the foundation of success.


Character Development

What is it?

Another term for social-emotional learning is character development, which again is the overlooked, yet deeply rooted part of education that many of us forget about. Many do not know that John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin encouraged character development in the new republic.  Character development includes teaching students to value respect, responsibility, compassion, and hard work, to name a few traits. It also encompasses helping students develop their patience, self-control, and diligence. Overall, these traits make for more teachable students. However, while over 90% of Americans agree with character education, it is sparsely taught in schools. Perhaps if we focused more on character development we’d see less school violence.


Why is it important?

You cannot teach through bad character or behavior. On the other hand, when students feel safe, engaged, and respected they can perform well academically. Character development is yet another foundation to success and academic success. If students don’t know how to be their best selves, how can they perform their best in schools? Education without character development is putting the cart before the horse, and is why so many students end up in suspensions, detentions, and other mal-intervention programs.

Research repeatedly shows character education is positively correlated to academic achievement. Simply put, good behavior is good education. If you really want to know why character development should be taught in schools, ask the schools that thoroughly and methodically provide character education. In those schools, you’ll find higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduced substance abuse, and less vandalism. Reason enough? I think so. But even if teachers support character development, it doesn’t mean they are experts in the field. We have a learning gap among our teachers: they cannot teach good character if they themselves aren’t taught how.


SEL & Character Development in Schools

Raising the bar

Over recent years, federal and state governments have raised the stakes for academic performance. Such policies demand higher test scores and harder curriculum, all the while SEL and character development falls flat. In fact, many schools specifically restrict classroom time devoted to any subject that is not directly related to reading, writing, math, etc, standards. And so, the higher the bar is raised, the more students reach their tipping point. With a weak SEL foundation already, herein lies the problem with today’s education.

The current problem

The current problem is that schools, under the pressure of test-based performance evaluations, are underemphasizing SEL and character development. Those schools that do attempt to teach it rarely have the right tools at their disposal. After spending years in the classroom, my experience going back to school for my masters degree was illuminating. At the university level, future teachers are presented with limitless research on social and emotional development. We are assigned projects and presentations to emphasize the importance of SEL. But the moment we step foot into a classroom, all we have are PowerPoint slides in our heads. No direction, no methods for teaching SEL, no tools, or outdated ones. Some of the SEL tools I have handled in the past include crudely drawn books, barely suitable for young ages let alone adolescents. Not to mention the accompanying SEL “games” meant for whole group interaction, role playing scenarios that are unrepresentative of the meaning of SEL. I can say that even with the extensive knowledge I hold in my head about SEL and the requirement to teach it, in the classroom I am stranded.


A time for change

After jumbling through meaningless printouts and reading social stories at nauseam I was excited to find a program called Suite360, which is developed by a company out of New Jersey called Evolution Labs. Suite360 is a collection of related digital curricula focused on SEL and character development. What better way to reach 21st century learners than through the same technology students can’t seem to tear themselves away from? All Suite360 programs are mobile and app based and developed by subject matter experts like school psychologists, guidance counselors and researchers. Suite360 offers an experience that is convenient and relevant for the student, and just as convenient for the teacher. Teachers can easily assign lessons to individuals or the whole class based on various SEL topics or infractions.

As an educator, Suite360 is the program I have been waiting for. It provides in-app data-tracking to save me from my never ending paper flow. And it offers relevant information for students in addition to tutorials for teachers. Offered for grades K-12, all content is aligned with the standards developed by the National Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Now your student doesn’t have to pretend to be engaged in social story circle time. They can either participate in grade-appropriate, relevant SEL lessons, or lessons that correlate directly to their infraction. With Suite360, I feel supported in my efforts to help my students succeed. It’s like having a social-emotional specialist in your pocket.

Okay, here comes my plug!

Relevant, individualized, and convenient, Suite360 is the wind of change coming to the social-emotional world of education. To join the hundreds of schools that are already using Suite360, visit: https://evpco.com/suite360welcome/ or contact Peter Kraft, President of Evolution Labs at (917) 648-3622 or at pkraft@evolabs360.com. He’s extremely passionate about the issues we’re all dealing with in schools today, and will get you pumped up about how we can all make a difference!