Funk: Why Social Emotional Learning is needed in schools
Photo courtesy of NoVo Foundation.

In my twenty-nine years in education, there is one steadfast factor that has never changed, but is more apparent than ever: All social issues impact educators.

Teaching is a profoundly enriching profession. The fact that parents entrust the school system to educate, protect, embrace, love, support and prepare their child for life in a democratic, capitalist society is one of the greatest responsibilities there is in life. Choosing a career in education as a public servant requires educators to make a social compact with families and society.

It was clear that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 under former President George W. Bush was an overall complete failure. The focus on Common Core Standards is a move in the right direction, but the impact is far from conclusive as to the effect of closing the persistent opportunity and achievement gaps that exists for students of color, English Language Learners, students living in poverty and students with special needs.

Another fact educators have known for many years and policymakers are just beginning to understand is that no matter how good a teacher is or how well-defined the curriculum is, if a student comes to school hungry, angry, filled with anxiety, uncertain about where they’ll sleep that night, worried about domestic abuse, worried about family drug use or concerned about violence on the street — learning is not going to happen.

Educators are turning to the framework of social emotional learning (SEL).

SEL is defined as the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions; set and achieve positive goals; feel and show empathy for others; establish and maintain positive relationships; and make responsible decisions.

As you can see, there is no mention of reading, writing and arithmetic or high scores on a standardized tests. Educating our students requires all of the above in order to prepare them to become responsible members of society.

In East Side Union High School District, we have been focusing on SEL for the past seven years. We started by funding a social worker at every campus. Each social worker has one or more interns supporting students with mental health needs.

Four years ago, we began offering adult training to develop a personal mindfulness practice, self-care during the workday and creating equitable communities through SEL. We offer this training to all employees of ESUHSD, and we introduce it to new teachers at our annual new teacher orientation, a one-day overview of the importance of developing a mindfulness community of practice.

Educating the whole child means we need to focus on content, skills development, assessment, and developing SEL because the pressure of living in today’s economy and exposure to the daily Twitter rants coming from the White House, requires educators to provide emotional intelligence to navigate our complex society.

SEL framework focuses on self-awareness (knowing your strengths and limitations), self-management (effectively managing stress, control impulses), social awareness (understand perspectives and empathize), relationship skills (communicate clearly, listen well, cooperative with others), and social awareness (make constructive, informed decisions). Isn’t this what we hope that all members of a civilized society are able to do? For far too long, policymakers and educational institutions have not invested resources, training or time for this type of learning in the educational pathway of our students.

Imagine developing SEL skills for thirteen years of education beginning in Kindergarten.

The impact would be significant on reducing addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and decreasing domestic violence, gang affiliation and other self-destructive behavior. I’m talking about the long game in changing the educational paradigm for supporting our students in the public school system in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has come out strong in his first budget by emphasizing a cradle-to-career initiative, otherwise known as the “California Promise.”  He is putting together an amazing team to support this initiative, especially with the appointment of Linda Darling-Hammond as the new President of the State Board of Education.

I am hopeful that policymakers will continue to shift from a single standardized test to measure student success and how schools are performing. We need to take a holistic approach to educating and supporting our children.  We need to redefine the role of educators and the pathways that we create for students.

SEL must be at the forefront of this new educational paradigm.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at funkc@esuhsd.org or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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