Science backs up what educators, parents, and caregivers have long known: learning is social, emotional, and cognitive. The most powerful learning happens when we pay attention to all of these aspects—not separately, but woven together, just like how our brains work. 

America’s Promise Alliance is advancing this understanding about how learning happens and helping to fuel the growing movement to educate children as whole people—combining their social and emotional well-being with academic growth and success. Our effort builds on the work of many organizations and coalitions to advance a whole child approach to learning and development. 

The voices of those on the frontlines of education, community, and employment drive us to believe that a focus on young people’s comprehensive learning and growth is essential for helping our schools, our communities, and our workplaces become the thriving, productive, and collaborative places we know they can be.


How Learning Happens Messaging Framework

Messages about learning are often obscured by confusion over terminology, weakening the field’s overall ability to tell a compelling story about social, emotional, and cognitive development. The narrative about learning must reflect the reality that learning is a social, emotional, and cognitive process for each and every young person—a process that is affected by their identities, relationships, circumstances, and a host of other academic and non-academic factors. Additionally, our narrative must become more intentionally youth-centered, equity-focused, and actively anti-racist. This document provides a shared messaging framework as a starting point for communicating about how learning happens. Our view is that a strong, coherent narrative can help the youth-supporting field come together, align our work toward a common purpose, and move toward the day when a whole child mindset is a well-accepted, widely-adopted model of approaching all work with children and youth.

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2019 Community Convener Partners

America’s Promise is supporting five communities from across the nation in advancing young people’s social, emotional, and cognitive development both in and out of school. Each community is planning a convening that will connect local partners with the goal of authentically engaging youth, promoting equity, and inspiring action around how learning happens for young people in their communities. Learnings from these convenings will inform the steps that communities across the country can take to better support their young people’s comprehensive growth and development.

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How Learning Happens Research Series 

Practitioners, policymakers, and researchers alike have embraced holistic approaches to learning and development, but how do young people perceive and experience these approaches? The How Learning Happens research series seeks to answer this question by directly engaging with young people about their learning experiences within school and out-of-school settings. As the nation responds to COVID-19, ongoing systemic racism, and an impending economic crisis, understanding how to support the social, emotional, and cognitive development of America’s young people has never been more urgent.

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From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope

A growing movement dedicated to the social, emotional, and academic well-being of children is reshaping learning and changing lives across America. On the strength of its remarkable consensus, a nation at risk is finally a nation at hope. The final report from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development includes recommendations in research, practice, and policy for helping states and local communities close the gap between what we know about how learning happens and the learning experiences that our young people are engaged in every day.

Authored by:

The Aspen Institute: National Commision on Social & Emotional Acacemic Development


Research, Practice, & 
Policy Agendas

  • The Science of Learning and Development

    Research shows strong relationships with educators help students develop the cognitive skills they need to learn and thrive.

  • What is the Social Brain?

    Brain science tells us learning is a social endeavor. Watch to find out more about #HowLearningHappens.

  • What Is Learning About

    Learning is academic, social, AND emotional. That’s not an opinion. That’s #HowLearningHappens.

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Communication Tools

How do we talk about the skills and competencies that help our young people learn and grow in a way that’s intuitive and actionable? This became the call to action that led Learning Heroes, the National Commission, and now America’s Promise Alliance, to collaborate in developing a suite of communications resources to help our partners address this challenge.

We hope these resources will help you effectively engage with multiple audiences―but especially with families, educators, and youth-serving leaders―about the development of social, emotional, and cognitive skills in children.

Explore the Tools

Building Partnerships in Support of Where, When, and How Learning Happens

Created by the National Commission’s Youth Development Work Group, this brief focuses on the critical role youth development organizations play in young people’s growth and development. If you are interested in learning more about the Youth Development Work Group and how you can be involved, please reach out to Nate Ross, Program and Communications Associate, The Forum for Youth Investment, at [email protected]

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Read the Brief

Latest Resources

How Learning Happens: Lessons Learned from Five Communities
Throughout 2020, America’s Promise Alliance worked with five communities across the country that wanted to extend and deepen their efforts to support young people’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Each community planned cross-sector convenings to inspire action that would…
Youth Engagement Discussion Guide
Students across the country are feeling the effects of a rapidly changing world—from the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on their lives and learning environments, to widespread uprisings in response to ongoing systemic racism. This discussion guide offers topical discussion questions…
America’s Promise Messaging Frameworks


America’s Promise Alliance is leading the How Learning Happens effort in partnership with: