Spurred by brain research that has shown a strong connection between the social and emotional skills of students and their cognitive development, more schools across the country are emphasizing “soft skills” such as communication, collaboration, self-awareness and problem-solving as part of a trend known as social and emotional learning, or SEL.
The obstacles to implementing SEL are significant. It requires resources and training at a time when many districts are struggling to provide the basics. There are critics who contend that instilling social values in students is the purview of parents not schools, and others who fear that SEL could easily be used as yet another way to punish low-income students of color who don’t conform to behavioral norms.
Another big challenge is determining how to measure social and emotional development in the first place. Unlike algebra or world history, there is no bubble sheet by which to judge students’ soft skills, let alone evaluate their growth over time. And even if there were standardized measures for traits like integrity and compassion, whose cultural norms should be used to judge the results?
Capital City is often cited by advocates of social and emotional learning for its commitment to putting these skills on a par with homework and exam scores. In addition to traditional academic grades, student report cards include marks from 1 to 4 on qualities such as organization, timeliness and accountability. While distilling character-based attributes to number grades has its skeptics, Capital City officials said the approach not only helps students gauge their progress, but signals just how important these skills are to their futures. Increasingly, it is these social and emotional skills — like perseverance and collaboration — that are seen as key to success in college and the workplace. Yet many employers say graduates lack these skills.
“We don’t question why students come to school to learn academics,” said Laina Cox, Capital City’s middle school principal. “And I see SEL the exact same way.”
Students talk about this so-called “character data” on a regular basis: in parent conferences, with their teachers, and during schoolwide “equity days,” where students discuss topics like religion and sexual orientation and participate in activities designed to build compassion and empathy. For Nia, the portfolio presentation represented a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate her own character. She was being evaluated not only on her achievements over the last three years, but on her ability to communicate them effectively and put them in the context of her personal growth. Students who fail to receive a positive evaluation are given detailed feedback on where they need to improve and an opportunity to present again.
At Capital City, a 19-year old school in northwest D.C., social and emotional learning is woven into daily interactions between adults and students and integrated into classroom content. After completing a challenging science project, for example, students might be given the opportunity to reflect on not just the academic material, but on how they adopted strategies of perseverance or problem-solving to overcome obstacles that arose along the way.
Students hone public speaking and communication skills by regularly presenting their work. Feedback, whether from teachers or peers, is viewed as a crucial learning tool. Students describe the process of rewriting and revising as a prerequisite for submitting high-quality work. When reflecting on their time at Capital City, many students are quick to link outcomes like good grades to personal characteristics of persistence, self-confidence and the ability to manage their time wisely.
In addition to their academic classes, students have a daily advisory class (led by one of their current teachers) in groups limited to no more than 10. The advisory class is designed as a space where students are encouraged to discuss whatever’s on their minds — not just academic issues, but personal issues too. Sharing their stories, and listening to the experiences of their peers, can help build a level of trust and respect that teachers say is key to allowing students thrive both socially and academically.
“I got a bunch of friends who go to schools around the neighborhood and it’s like you go to school, you get your grades, alright we’re done for the day,” said Daniel Escobar, a 2019 graduate who plans to attend Washington Adventist University in the fall. “Capital City finds a way to make sure everyone feels safe, emotionally and also academically.”
“Without the social-emotional part I would have dropped out,” said 18-year-old Kimberly Hernandez, class of 2019. “In my family, a lot of people don’t really graduate from high school. There were various times at Capital City where I was just like, ‘Man I wanna drop out. It’s getting really hard.’ The students here, the teachers, the staff itself they were just like you have to stay, you have to work harder. I’m really proud of myself because I didn’t think I was going to make it this far in the first place.”
In the majority black and Latino pre-K-12 school of roughly 1,000 students, 74 percent of whom come from low-income households, 100 percent of graduating seniors are accepted to college, officials said. The four- and five-year high school graduation rates of 86 percent and 98 percent, respectively, exceed city averages, as does attendance in both the middle school and high school.
Middle school performance on standardized tests, however, isn’t notably higher than city averages in English and dips below them in math. And within the school there remains a significant achievement gap, with black and Latino students scoring three times lower than their white classmates in English and five times lower in math. School leaders acknowledge that there is still plenty of work to be done, but argue for longer-term measures of success.
“I’m not saying test scores should be out the door,” said Cox. “What I’m saying is they shouldn’t be the only way we are judging our kids.”
To that end, Capital City’s high school counselors have made tracking students after graduation a priority. The results they cite are promising. Of its first class of seniors in 2012, 45 percent received a college degree within six years, according to documents provided by the school, far above the 14 percent nationwide average for low-income students. School leaders say their near-term goal is to increase that number to 60 percent, in line with the national average for all students. For subsequent graduating classes, the school’s latest figures indicate that 71 percent of students are still enrolled in college.
As social and emotional learning spreads, schools are increasingly wrestling with questions of assessment — how to quantify student performance in areas like self-awareness and problem-solving. Capital City’s approach of attaching grades to social and emotional skills on student report cards isn’t unique. Elementary schoolers in San Francisco Public Schools, for example, receive number grades in areas like regulating their emotions and managing challenging situations. In Montgomery County, Maryland, report cards specify whether elementary school students “collaborate with others” and demonstrate “motivation and persistence.”
But there is disagreement, even among SEL proponents, not only over how to measure social and emotional learning, but whether to do it in the first place. Methods for assessing SEL are only just emerging. Putting teachers in charge of deciding which students are socially competent raises concerns that educators’ unconscious biases could creep into the evaluation process, disproportionately penalizing students of color. Experts stress that grades should be used not as an end unto themselves, but as tool for helping students improve.
“It is useful to get a baseline understanding of where students are on things we want them to learn,” said Robert Jagers, vice president of research at CASEL, a nonprofit that advocates for social and emotional learning. But, he added, “[social and emotional] competencies are hard to measure.” Researchers like himself, he said, are “concerned about their use for high-stakes purposes” such as school accountability and funding.
Schools that do evaluate these skills need to consider including input beyond that of the classroom teacher, said Jagers. Students, parents and outside evaluators should also have a voice in whether the school is providing a safe and welcoming environment, through surveys and other tools. Done right, he said, social and emotional instruction will help elevate student performance in academic areas.
Hayden Frederick-Clarke, director of cultural proficiency at Boston Public Schools, likewise stressed that schools need to be careful about imposing the cultural norms of white teachers onto students from other backgrounds. Otherwise, he said, social and emotional learning can turn into “acculturation and assimilation activities.”
Capital City educators said they take steps to ensure that their process is fair and geared toward helping students improve. Students are measured on traits like reflection and accountability in the context of their academic work, school officials said. A research-heavy science project that involves numerous revisions and multiple draft deadlines, for example, provides an opportunity for a student to demonstrate organization and punctuality skills. A group project that ends in a class presentation will call upon a student’s communication abilities.
Students also discuss “character data” on more subjective qualities like integrity and character, but they don’t receive grades in these areas. The focus is on more concrete qualities like organization and timeliness in the context of their academic studies.
Administrators added the program places an emphasis on ensuring that the school’s teachers, many of whom are white, understand the importance of culturally responsive teaching. They receive professional training on race and implicit bias and participate in regular, often candid conversations about these topics with their colleagues. Teachers are also hired based in part on their understanding of, and commitment to, the school’s approach to social and emotional learning, said Cox.
“When I interviewed here,” said Lapeta Solomon, an English teacher who just finished her third year at the school, “I came in the door and I saw people laughing, I saw people talking to little kids, I saw people smiling, I saw people giving hugs. I knew this was for me. I called my partner and I was like ‘I’m home.’”
She and others noted that Capital City’s approach is not easy to replicate. The school serves grades pre-K to 12, providing a cohesive educational experience. And because Capital City is a lottery school, many of its students gain admission aided by a high level of parental involvement. Teachers also cited the autonomy they are given and their freedom from the strictures of teach-to-the-test mandates many said they’ve experienced at previous schools. Above all, however, the school’s educators cited the importance of creating mutual trust and respect between teachers and students.
The trust helped carry Nia, the eighth grader, through the jitters of her presentation day. As she wrapped up her portfolio presentation and listened to feedback from the panel, the atmosphere was more reminiscent of a PhD presentation than the conclusion of middle school. Afterward, Nia said she felt relieved to have the experience behind her but added that the months of preparation reminded her just how much she’s grown since arriving as a fifth grader.
“I’ve become more confident,” she said. Her experiences at Capital City, Nia said, would help carry her to high school and beyond.
This story about social emotional skills was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.