Academic learning alone doesn't assure student success
From their perspective on the frontlines of education, teachers know the incredible complexity and importance of the work they do. In addition to developing cognitive skills in academic subjects like reading and math, teachers must develop a wide range of social and emotional skills — helping students learn how to persevere through frustrations and challenges, how to cooperate and work effectively with peers, and how to believe in themselves as learners and individuals.
But to make any of this learning possible, students must first have their basic needs met. If students are worried about where they will be sleeping that night or if they will have food to eat, they struggle to focus on learning. To further strengthen public education in Connecticut, we need to support students and teachers in a holistic way that accounts for all of this complexity; and a new recently released report provides the evidence that this approach will work.
Prepared by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD Commission), the report, "From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,"synthesizes a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that a focus on academic learning alone will not guarantee student success." The report compiles decades of research in psychology, education, and brain science with findings from two years of conversations and site visits conducted across the country to learn from students, parents, educators, community leaders, and other experts. The strong consensus both in the research and on the ground is that a whole-child approach to learning is fundamental to student success in the classroom as well as beyond.
Great teachers intuitively understand, embrace, and demonstrate the value of a whole-child approach. Inspirational examples from New London show the district’s creative, resourceful, and dedicated teachers exemplifying a whole-child approach. New London teachers often purchase extra sweatshirts and sweaters for their students to keep them from being cold both inside and outside the classroom. Physical Education teachers are building cultural diversity into their curriculum using games from across the world. Several teachers have applied for Fund for Teachers fellowships to complete Spanish immersion programs in countries like Costa Rica to better serve English Language Learners through culturally-responsive instruction.
The report makes recommendations well worth consideration for how communities and schools can take actionable steps in advancing a whole-child approach. We should infuse social and emotional learning into the curriculum so that these skills are being taught explicitly as well as reinforced through academic instruction and school-wide practices, while adapting assessments to be responsive to that evolution and, most importantly, calibrated based on individual student growth.
We need accompanying programs that provide teachers with skills that will help them foster social and emotional learning as well as better meet a wide range of diverse student needs, both through professional development as well as during teachers’ initial training. If we bolster teacher education programs in targeted ways, including by valuing and extending the internship program component that places student teachers in the field for training, teachers will enter the classroom better prepared for their critical work.
Lastly, reflective of the holistic approach needed, we must build collaborative working communities involving families, schools, and nonprofit organizations that can partner in ensuring that students are supported both in and out of school with the safe, nurturing environment required for learning to happen.
To prepare students for success in school and life, we must take a holistic approach that attends to their social, emotional, and cognitive development in a personalized way, first ensuring their basic needs are met to make learning possible. This report provides a rousing call to action around the promise that a whole-child approach holds for delivering the educational outcomes we all seek together, and through its recommendations, provides a starting point for our conversation about how to now turn these ideas into action.
Barbara Dalio is the co-founder and director of the Dalio Foundation and Rich Báez is the president of the New London Education Association. The Dalio Foundation has funded the SEAD Commission since 2016.
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