Treating students like humans

The Aspen Institute report shows the crucial importance of social-emotional learning. Here's why it's critical to empower students in high school.

By Team XQ

Aspen Institute report shows the crucial importance of social-emotional learning.

There’s more to a well-rounded education than test scores and textbooks: A long-awaited report from the Aspen Institute shows that a student’s social and emotional development is an integral, even crucial, part of their academic success.

The report, Nation at Hope, paints a broad picture of how students, families, communities, and the whole country benefit when schools focus on a student’s personal growth, not just the nuts-and-bolts of traditional academics.

“Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs,” according to the report. “As one teacher put it, ‘I don’t teach math; I teach kids math.’ To reach a child’s mind, we must be concerned for the whole person.”

Two years in the making, the report was released this week by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. The Commission reviewed research, visited schools, conducted interviews, and collected insights from leaders in education, business, policy, academia, and the military.

Improving the Likeliness of Success

The report emphasizes that students are more likely to succeed in school, college, career, and life when they learn social-emotional skills such as:

  • Paying attention
  • Setting goals
  • Collaboration
  • Planning for the future
  • Internal motivation
  • Perseverance
  • A sense of purpose
  • Responsibility
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Critical thinking
  • The ability to consider other views
  • Problem-solving

The Importance of Personal Growth

Tending to students’ personal growth also plays a key role in educational equity, according to the report.

“Social and emotional learning benefits all children, of every background. But it disproportionally benefits children from low-income communities, many of whom experience trauma and adversity resulting from insecure access to housing, food, health care, and safety,” according to the report. “All students need supportive relationships and nurturing learning environments, but students facing additional stress have a particular need to be surrounded by caring adults who treat them as individuals with potential and inherent worth. And when adults create this environment, children of every background can thrive.”

A focus on social-emotional learning – especially as it relates to academics and equity – is a major component of XQ schools and XQ’s mission to transform American high schools. To give all students a high-quality education, schools need to address students’ individual needs, provide a safe atmosphere for students to learn among trusted adults, and give students the life skills to succeed in school and beyond. XQ’s five XQ learner goals aim to develop students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to offer.

The “Deeper Learning” Design Principle

Social-emotional learning is also a part of the “deeper learning” design principle that XQ encourages schools to consider.

“The principles behind deeper learning are deceptively simple: build trusting relationships with students, treat them as individuals, invest in their success, and help them mature into responsible and concerned adults armed with foundational knowledge and skills,” Michele Cahill, XQ’s Senior Advisor, said.

XQ Learners infographic

Putting Relationships at the Center of School Culture

Several XQ schools, in particular, have seen enormous success with social-emotional learning practices. Washington Leadership Academy, a STEM-focused charter school in Washington, D.C., has built its school culturearound trust, responsibility, and collaboration. Da Vinci RISE, an alternative school in Los Angeles, puts relationships at the center of the school culture, “so students feel known, valued, and loved by adults who have no legal ties to them but purely want them to succeed,” Erin Whalen, the school’s assistant principal, wrote when he recently shared his thoughts about the school’s ethos.

XQ’s knowledge modules explore the topic more thoroughly and offer examples and tips for schools trying to incorporate more social-emotional learning practices.

Russlynn Ali, XQ’s Chief Executive Officer, put it this way:

“We believe that quality education develops not just the minds, but also the character, work habits, mental and physical health of our young people. The bottom line is, we want young people to be active and independent as adults, so our schools must listen to their voices, educate the whole person, challenge you with regular opportunities for discussion and critical thinking, and foster increasing independence.”

A Benefit for the Entire Community

The report notes that students’ social and emotional skills are not the sole responsibility of schools. After-school programs, sports activities, libraries, and other community organizations also play a key role in students’ education. In turn, the entire community will benefit when its young people are more engaged with school and learning life skills to help them succeed.

The report offers several recommendations for schools and ultimately sounds a hopeful note. After all, thousands of schools are have already prioritized social-emotional learning, not just in their curriculum but in the entire campus culture. And support is widespread: more than nine in 10 teachers and parents believe that social and emotional learning is important to education, and at least two-thirds of current and recent high school students think similarly, according to the report.

We Must Support the Whole Learner

“This idea is rooted in the best educational and neurological research. But it has taken shape in local schools and communities. Students, families, educators, and leaders are galvanizing around a growing recognition that we must support the whole learner; and they are making it happen in ways that fit their unique circumstances,” the authors wrote. “The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the ‘real work’ of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed.”

With a comprehensive list of recommendations, the Commission urges schools, families, communities, and policymakers to continue working hard to integrate social-emotional learning into the fabric of American education. It notes that a student’s well-being is not the sole responsibility of schools. It starts with families and extends to the highest levels of society. But with vision, determination, courage, and creativity, we can improve educational – and quality-of-life – outcomes for all students.