We’re at a unique and exciting point in the fields of social and emotional learning (SEL) and academic mindsets, poised for breakthroughs that could reshape how we think about preparing students for success in school, career, and life. “Rethinking How Students Succeed” highlights why we should be optimistic and points the way for future progress.

Importantly, the article also reflects and builds on the energizing spirit of collaboration that emerged at a day-long fall 2014 convening in Boston of educators, researchers, and practitioners who more frequently work in their respective silos. Advocates of SEL, academic mindsets, and an increased emphasis in schools on helping students develop character, compared notes and shared aspirations. We came away with a deeper understanding of what unites us in our common quest to help every student reach full potential. And we agreed to be more thoughtful about how to collaborate going forward.

To that end, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has committed to working with other groups to coordinate views on research-based strategies and policies to enhance students’ social, emotional, and academic development. We’re doing this, in part, to recognize explicitly that social, emotional, and cognitive development are intertwined.

A variety of strategies have been grouped under umbrella terms like “noncognitive” and “nonacademic” competence. Many are beneficial and evidence-based. But rather than addressing “non” targets, we aspire to emphasize the ways in which these competencies are linked, inextricably, to cognitive and academic development. Our field will advance when diverse but kindred groups come together to articulate and promote developmentally appropriate intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies based on the best science and best educational practice. It is time for us to collaborate and present an aligned perspective on how schools, families, and communities can enhance the social, emotional, and academic growth of all students from preschool to high school.

CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative, involving eight school districts across the country, is one strand of this work. Research has shown that well-implemented evidenced-based SEL programs benefit children in a number of ways—improving their self-confidence, connection to school, behavior, and academic performance. Our Collaborating Districts Initiative is helping districts to take this work system-wide with implementation of preschool to high school SEL programming throughout the school day.

Two participating districts—Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas—were featured in the “Rethinking How Students Succeed” article. They prioritize their systemic SEL programming in their strategic plans, and are adopting and integrating evidence-based SEL classroom, school-wide, family, and community programs and strategies. They are developing structures and systems, such as investing in coaches to assist teachers, and forming learning communities for educators to learn from one another. Our goal is to create models that other school districts can learn from and adapt. We’re three years into the initiative, with at least another three to go. Early data show positive effects on behavior and academic success.

We’re encouraged, but we also understand just how hard this work really is. Several challenges in particular make this work difficult. One is turnover in school district leadership. We began the Collaborating Districts Initiative in 2011. By the end of this year, all eight superintendents who were involved at the start will have moved on or retired. Transitions aren’t easy; the good news in each district is that new leaders have sustained the Initiative’s momentum. A second major issue is budgeting. To sustain quality of work in the context of deep budget cuts, school districts must commit to thinking systemically about how SEL gets integrated with other important initiatives, such as the Common Core standards, multi-tiered systems of support, school climate and culture, and discipline.

Rather than dwell on barriers to progress, though, I’d like to recognize a few compelling positives. There’s widespread belief now that if you want to improve academic performance, you have to care about social and emotional dimensions and mindsets. Many school districts around the country are interested in SEL, academic mindset and character development programming because teachers are asking for it. CASEL is working to help meet that need by reviewing and identifying evidence-based programs that benefit students, are well-designed, and support quality implementation.

In my view, programs are a powerful resource to help teachers integrate SEL, character, and academic mindset development practices into their daily interactions with students. That’s what the best programs try to do. “Rethinking How Students Succeed” rightly emphasized the importance of this integration, but it downplayed the value of programs in reaching that goal. I see implementation of evidence-based programs as enormously beneficial scaffolding that allows teachers to benefit from knowledge built up over the past 20 or 30 years.

At CASEL, we want to equip educators with ways to go about this work to get the best possible outcomes for students. We’re also working with states on SEL standards and guidelines. Five years from now, if we’re successful, I’d like to see thousands of schools that have integrated SEL and related academic mindset and youth development approaches into the way they educate students. “Rethinking How Students Succeed” shines a light down that path.

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