What if every young person went to a school where they felt safe, supported, and empowered?
What role do school staff, teachers, and administrators play in creating an environment that fosters that sense of belonging?
How does the community support schools to help them address the many challenges facing students?
These are some of the questions that the Every School Healthy campaign is most interested in understanding. Our campaign seeks to advance healthy and safe schools where all young people can thrive because the social, emotional, physical, and mental health of all students and staff is prioritized.
But those questions all bubble up into a bigger question that we must answer: “How do we as a country shift from focusing purely on academics to fostering young people’s social and emotional growth, too?”
A new report released today, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, helps answer this question. The report, by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, demands a more comprehensive approach to student development. Science has made clear that children learn best when we teach them as whole people, and schools and communities are recognizing that they can no longer separate academics and students’ broader development.
With A Nation at Hope, leaders in communities committed to meeting all dimensions of young people’s development have the backing and support of a range of experts in policy, practice, and research. The National Commission provides a roadmap to help meet the groundswell of organic demand for a whole child, human development approach to learning.
The report outlines the evidence that students’ positive social, emotional and academic development improves their attendance, test scores, success in college and careers, and overall well-being. This evidence aligns with what we have learned through our work at the intersection of education and health through our GradNation and Every School Healthy campaigns. The simple reality is that neglecting the social and emotional needs of children and youth creates a barrier to academic success.
We recently reviewed more than 140 applications from communities for a grant opportunity and we heard over and over that issues like poverty, trauma, racism, and unmet mental health needs most contributed to poor health and educational outcomes for young people in their communities.
America's Promise believes that even the best academic content delivered over the course of a school day may not be enough to address the complex challenges students face. And we also know that supporting the social and emotional needs of students should be integrated into the school setting — and not something that is simply added on to the already full plate of teachers and school leaders.
That’s why we all must rally to support educating and tending to the whole child by turning our focus to social, emotional, and academic development. We believe that by shifting the weight of responsibility to one that rests on all of our shoulders, we can make it possible to actually improve education and life outcomes for all children and youth.
The Nation at Hope report provides six recommendations for action to accelerate efforts and help local communities address young people’s comprehensive development:
- Set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child, and articulates the social, emotional, and academic knowledge that students need.
- Transform learning settings so they are physically and emotionally safe and foster strong bonds among children and adults.
- Change instruction to teach students social, emotional, and cognitive skills and embed them in academic learning and in schoolwide practices.
- Build adult expertise in child development to ensure that teachers and other youth-serving adults receive the professional learning and ongoing supports they need to model and teach social, emotional, and cognitive skills to young people.
- Align resources and leverage partners to coordinate between schools, families, and communities to support healthy learning and development in and out of school.
- Forge closer, dynamic connections between research and practice by changing how research gets done.
These recommendations represent a critical and research-backed way to promote the student success we have been seeking for a long time. The recommendations bring to light something that has been missing, or at least not front and center, in the education reform narrative to date: that young people are not empty vessels to be filled with academic knowledge but are individuals with assets who are growing in multiple ways, not only academic.
We know it is possible to integrate social and emotional learning into the school experience because parts of the recommendations are already being practiced in communities across the country. The Every School Healthy campaign has partnered with six communities that are leading groundbreaking work embodying the spirit of the Nation at Hope report and its recommendations, including:
- In Crook County, Oregon, Better Together Central Oregon and Crook County School District have partnered with six community organizations in a comprehensive effort to create healthier students and staff by de-stigmatizing mental illness and increasing positive interactions between students and the adults they encounter in schools. The district provided teachers and school staff with the development and training they need to create supportive environments in schools for young people facing trauma. They are also partnering with Mosaic Medical, a community health center network that is increasing capacity and resources for mental health services in schools.
- In St. Louis, our community partner, Alive and Well Communities is working with the School District of University City to focus on student well-being and implementing restorative practices like fishbowls — where students, teachers, school leaders, and community members reflect on an issue, question, or conflict. On a recent radio show, Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, the district’s superintendent, described practices like fishbowls as a part of the district’s efforts to “humanize the learning experience,” one of the three core pillars of their Learning Reimagined approach.
The University City approach aligns with a recent Center for Promise report, Disciplined and Disconnected, which found that school leaders and personnel needed external support including support for ongoing professional development — like the support provided to University City schools by Alive and Well Communities — over the course of multiple years to build capacity for successfully implementing more supportive discipline models. The school leaders, all in Minnesota, also described the importance of cultivating trust across the school community to get everyone on board and build capacity to successfully implement non-exclusionary discipline practices.
The National Commission’s recommendations and the work of communities across the country opens up the possibility of profound shifts in both the way we understand how children learn and in our collective expectation of the school experience. America’s Promise believes this could be a difference-maker for the future for young people in our nation and we are ready to do our part.