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May 11, 201211:32 AMEducation Matters

Raising Stellar Students About More Than Getting Top Grades

May 11, 2012 - 11:32 AM
Raising Stellar Students About More Than Getting Top Grades

Photo courtesy Montgomery County Public Schools

Would you rather have an academically successful kid who can’t quite handle life’s social and emotional challenges or an average student able to deal with success and failure with equal aplomb?

Most of us probably hope for the whole package: a caring, well-adjusted child who works hard in school and strives to be a good person. But by focusing too much on achieving academic success, we and our kids may have lost our way.

So how do we refocus on developing the whole child?

By promoting social and emotional learning at home and at school, says Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr, who hosted a forum on the topic Thursday night at Walt Whitman High School.

“We’re trying to raise awareness about a really important competency that our kids need,” Starr told the gathering of about 150 educators and parents at the final of four forums he’s hosted this spring.

But what exactly is social and emotional learning?

It’s the process through which we acquire the knowledge, attitudes and skills we need to recognize and manage our emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations constructively, school officials say.

Promoting this type of learning is becoming more paramount “as we become increasingly focused on a rigid conception of success, aligned with standardized tests,” Starr said. “Are we missing something? Have we lost something? I think we have.”

“Increasingly we’re recognizing there’s a mismatch between what we’re doing in schools and what we need to be successful in the world,” Starr said.

Experts believe that social and emotional learning is critical to achieving success in academics and life. If MCPS schools focus on promoting this type of learning, “you will find an 11 percent increase” in students’ academic achievement, said Donna Snyder, manager of Whole Child Programs at ASCD, an educational leadership organization based in Alexandria.

That’s because emotion drives attention, learning and memory. “There can be no separation of emotion and learning during school hours and any other time,” Snyder said.

It’s a challenging goal. Students today face so many pressures that didn’t exist when we were growing up: from over-scheduled lives to changes in family structures to an overwhelming bombardment by media and advertising that encourages violence as a problem-solving tool and promotes other unhealthy behaviors and unrealistic lifestyles.

So how can schools promote social and emotional learning while still focusing on academic rigor and equity? By making sure that every educator at every school understands that it’s their job to do so.

Starr made clear that he “was not launching an initiative” in MCPS schools by promoting social and emotional learning. Rather, he was asking parents and educators to consider what they could do to impact students’ development.

“Purchasing a program doesn’t do it. You don’t change a culture by memo,” he said. “It’s a way of thinking about the work.”

To get started, here are some ideas from forum participants:

  • Greet every child as they enter school each day.
  • Hold regular classroom meetings to check in with kids and find out what’s happening in their lives.
  • Reward and acknowledge good behavior more often than pointing out bad behavior.
  • Disconnect from technology and relate to each other face to face.
  • Get parents involved in the classroom and the school.
  • Provide more playtime in the early years, so that kids can learn to work together.

And here’s something we’d all do well to remember: Encourage risk-taking, even if it results in failure.

“Suffering is not the worst thing in the world,” Starr said. “Letting kids suffer and struggle is not a bad thing.”

May 18, 2012 10:52 am
 Posted by  Rusty May

Great article Julie. SEL is so important and must be taught as part of the K-12 journey. I'm a school counselor in California and we created a daily social skills video that classes watch together as part of there morning routine. It is helping teachers connect with students on the very issues that Mr. Starr is talking about. I'd love to get your feedback on the resource. Your professional review would be really meaningful to us as we try to figure out ways to encourage the teaching of SEL all over the country. Thanks and have a great day.

Rusty May

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