Social-Emotional Learning and Rigor Don’t Have To Be Enemies

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I’m a sixth grade teacher grappling with the reality of teaching kids who may not have darkened a school door in over a year. Many of their students haven’t been in an actual classroom since their elementary days. And while the pressure is mounting to accelerate student learning and make academics a priority, that won’t happen without also striving to reach the unique social-emotional needs born out of this crisis.

I’m calling attention to this because it seems like there’s a weird riff between proponents of social-emotional learning (SEL) and those educators more inclined to the rigorous, academic side of schools. 

On the one hand, we’ve all seen the viral posts from teachers and school leaders lauding students for being “more than test scores,” instead pointing to the many services like food delivery and technology access as emblems of success. 

On the other hand, calls from politicians, advocates, and parents to improve performance in areas like math and reading make academic performance seem like the clear priority as schools rebound from the pandemic.

But know this: Prioritizing student achievement and providing students with SEL supports are not mutually exclusive goals. 

If you work in education and that statement seems like a truism to you, wear it as a badge of honor. Because each time I pass by my neighborhood elementary school’s flashing LED sign imploring staff members to put “Relationships Before Rigor!” I’m reminded that there are many who see a divide where there isn’t one.

SEL can have a real, lasting academic impact on students. In a study involving diverse preschool students, researchers saw a direct relationship between four-year-olds’ self-control and first grade math achievement. In an analysis of over 200 different SEL programs, students who received SEL supports demonstrated an 11-percentile-point-gain in achievement. 

This contrived struggle between academic rigor and social-emotional development isn’t a fork in the road at all. It’s actually a giant roundabout. And helping students reach their destination—a quality education that empowers them to be responsible, self-determined citizens—is going to take serious commitment to both their social-emotional and academic needs as we continue navigating this crisis.

Placing the burden on schools to deliver all these results may prove to be an impossible task, but it’s incumbent that they try. Student wellness checks and solid professional development around trauma-informed care are excellent places to start. Throw in additional funding from the American Rescue Plan to supply additional school counselors and we have a fighting chance.

But the first (and perhaps most difficult) step toward success in this new normal is a change of mindset. Like thousands of other teachers around the country, I’m heading back to school this month knowing that SEL matters more than ever before. Instead of seeing it as “just one more thing” we have to do, let’s recognize it as the foundation for success—academic and otherwise—that our students need this year.  

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