Schools Need Partners for Social-Emotional Learning to Become a Reality

Lessons from California

Guest blog post by Jennifer Peck, President and CEO, Partnership For Children & Youth

Research is consistently confirming that social-emotional learning is the foundation for academic success for all students. We increasingly hear about the importance of safe and supportive learning environments, especially for children experiencing trauma and extreme stress. Our challenge lies in implementation — how do we take what we know and believe kids need, and make it real in schools and communities?

At the start of 2019, The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD) released its recommendations for how best to scale the integration of social-emotional learning into classrooms across America. These recommendations are now starting to guide and inform practice and policy strategies at the national, state, and local levels. The Commission’s work was an important step in highlighting the critical role of social-emotional learning in our education system, and their charge was complex.

Our challenge lies in implementation — how do we take what we know and believe kids need, and make it real in schools and communities?
SEL Implementation Progress in Action

California is no stranger to this challenge of taking proven strategies and practices and trying to implement them on a broad scale. With more than six million students spanning widely diverse geographies and contexts, this challenge is constant. Inspiring and embedding change that has real impact and staying power requires a strategic, multi-faceted, and patient approach. Intermediary organizations, working both on the ground in communities and with policymakers, understand the mix of policy and practice strategies that are required to effectively meet these challenges.

Partnership for Children and Youth is one of many nonprofit intermediaries across the country supporting social-emotional learning. Our work, and that of many of our intermediary partners such as those in the Every Hour Counts network, ensure that the multiple settings in which youth spend their time are considered as we tackle implementation of social-emotional learning. Learning doesn’t happen just in the classroom, but also in afterschool programs, summer learning programs, and in communities and families. We are more likely to be successful embedding strong social-emotional skills in young people if the adults with whom they have trusted relationships are teaching and supporting them. Sometimes this is a classroom teacher, but sometimes it’s the afterschool coach who sees a talent no one else does, or the bus driver or custodian who’s known every child since kindergarten and asks how they are doing each morning. All these adults can be equipped to work as a team on behalf of young people.

Learning doesn’t happen just in the classroom, but also in afterschool programs, summer learning programs, and in communities and families. We are more likely to be successful embedding strong social-emotional skills in young people if the adults with whom they have trusted relationships are teaching and supporting them.

In California, we convene a professional learning community of seven school districts multiple times each year to align their in-school, after-school, and summer social-emotional learning strategies, so that students can have consistent, positive learning environments and skill-building opportunities across the whole day and year. We support the districts’ local planning and implementation, their peer learning, and ensure promising practices are documented and shared. American Institutes for Research recently evaluated this professional learning community and found that its facilitated peer learning has resulted in transformational work in urban and rural districts such as Los Angeles and Visalia. Notable findings include increased collaboration between school day and expanded learning staff, stronger use of data to track districts’ success, and more data sharing between districts and afterschool. Many districts have since developed joint professional development and shared frameworks, and are bringing school teams together to ensure teachers and afterschool staff are supported and working in coordination.

District and Expanded Learning Partnerships

This promising work happening in communities must inform how policy and system leaders design their strategies and investments in capacity building. Intermediaries grounded in the work in the field can bring stories and ideas to state leadership tables so that decision-makers understand where to invest time and resources. We can translate learnings into actionable steps that policy and system leaders can take. In California, the inspiring work of the district teams in our professional learning community has been presented to our state department of education, county office of education administrators, and others who influence how social-emotional learning will be supported.

This promising work happening in communities must inform how policy and system leaders design their strategies and investments in capacity building.

Being at the intersection of policy and practice gives intermediaries the ability to see how the puzzle pieces fit together in a complex system, and act in strategic ways to advance this critical work. This is the powerful work our intermediary partners can do, and they should be looked to around the country as the SEAD Commission and its supporters and allies consider its strategies and investments moving forward.

Jennifer Peck is the president and CEO of the Partnership for Children & Youth and co-leads the California Department of Education’s Social-Emotional Learning State Team. For nearly 20 years, the Partnership for Children & Youth has championed high-quality educational opportunities for California’s underserved youth through advocacy and capacity-building.