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Social and emotional learning focuses on how kids are actually doing

Test scores have become the sole fixation of our education system. At least since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, states, districts, schools, principals, teachers, and students have been labeled successful or failing based on the single, narrow criteria of how well they perform on tests measuring basic math and reading skills.

This is curious for a number of reasons. For starters, standardized test scores aren’t a great predictor of life outcomes we care about, like college graduation and later-in-life earnings. They also fail to measure whether or not we’re developing students who are critical and creative thinkers, traits essential for an economy in which machines are taking on more and more tasks that humans used to do.

But most importantly, these scores give us little indication of how our children are actually doing. They offer no indication of whether they feel a sense of belonging and purpose, whether they’re motivated and engaged, whether they’re developing into caring and loving individuals. Objectives that should be a primary focus are crowded out by our obsession with test scores.

A focus on student well-being is what motivated Scarlett Lewis to develop the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Enrichment Program, a suite of free resources designed for k-12 teachers that center around students’ social and emotional health. Scarlett’s son Jesse was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. In the years since the tragedy, Scarlett devoted herself to developing resources that educators can turn to in helping children develop core traits like courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion – and become caring and loving individuals.

Resources like this are particularly critical today as more and more children arrive in k-12 schools having experienced toxic levels of childhood stress and trauma, suggesting they may struggle with cognitive and emotional self-regulation. In school, they often receive unengaging pedagogy and strict discipline policies, which may only serve to trigger their deficiencies, and does little to engender a sense of belonging and purpose. For these students, dealing with their social and emotional health is of primary importance, not to mention essential groundwork for academic success.

As an added benefit, the traits that social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculums like Scarlett’s seek to develop are some of the “soft skills” that the 21st century workplace values. SEL seeks to help build the “emotional intelligence” that Daniel Goleman made famous in a book of the same name in the mid 90s. In today’s increasingly collaborative work environments, traits like empathy, the ability to understand what others are feeling and respond appropriately, are necessities. Yet as children get older, we spend very little time with them on recognizing and talking about their emotions and the emotions of others.

Of course, academic achievement and the development of 21st century skills are only happy byproducts of social and emotional learning. Scarlett Lewis developed her curriculum in the aftermath of an unimaginable tragedy under the belief that “If we infuse our classrooms with love and teach children how to give and receive love, they won’t want to harm one another and could actually add to a more peaceful and loving world.” And this – the goal of developing caring, loving, emotionally intelligent young people in our schools – is why we need to make sure curriculums like Scarlett’s are part of the school day more often. We need far more out of our schools than just test scores, and the more we can take a wide-angle lens and focus on how students are really doing, the better.

 

 

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Patrick Cooney

Patrick Cooney was a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy.

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