Increasingly, researchers and educators recognize that schools cannot focus solely on students’ academic learning to improve achievement. They also must nurture students’ psychological development, often described as social emotional learning (SEL). While this new focus on SEL benefits all students, it is especially critical for low-income students and students of color, according to Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate, and Empower Youth, a new study from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).
“[F]ailing to meet students’ psychological, social, and emotional needs will continue to fuel gaps in opportunity and achievement for students—in particular, low-income students and students of color—who are frequently underserved by the large one-size-fits-all schools they attend,” MarYam G. Hamedani, associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, writes in a post for Education Week’s Learning Deeply blog. “While psychological supports alone don’t erase the burden of poverty or eliminate the challenges faced by historically underserved students, they can help mitigate the effects and clear a path for achievement.”
The SCOPE study examines how three diverse small public high schools have implemented social emotional learning schoolwide and analyzes that implementation across three areas—school climate and culture, organizational features and structures, and school practices. The researchers selected the three schools—Fenway High School (Boston, Massachusetts), El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice (Brooklyn, New York), and International School of the Americas (San Antonio, Texas)—because each school has an explicit schoolwide focus on SEL and demonstrated stronger academic outcomes and graduation rates than similar schools in their districts. Although each school serves fewer than 500 students, each one serves predominantly students of color. At Fenway High School and El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, the majority of students also qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while at the International School of the Americas about one-quarter of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Hamedani, the study’s project director, and her colleagues conducted in-depth case studies of the three SEL high schools, surveyed their students, and compared their responses with a national survey of students in traditional public high schools. Students in the SEL high schools reported a more caring school climate, stronger relationships with teachers, greater engagement with school, stronger feelings of efficacy and resilience, and more ambitious goals for higher education, compared to students not attending SEL schools.
While traditional SEL focuses primarily on students’ abilities to understand themselves and build supportive relationships with others, the schools featured in the SCOPE study take an expanded view of SEL that emphasizes social justice education as a well. The researchers determined that the social justice component enhances SEL by grounding it directly in the needs of the diverse student populations the schools serve and encourages students to examine issues of equity and advancement in their local communities.
“While social emotional learning is critical to providing students with an equitable education, we found that an expanded vision incorporating a social justice education perspective is essential,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, coauthor of the study, Stanford University Charles E. Ducommum Professor of Education, and SCOPE faculty director. “Each of the schools in this study has developed ways to implement these approaches successfully.”
According to the study, each of the high schools integrates SEL into all aspects of school life to educate the “whole student,” creating climates, norms, and expectations that place students’ psychological needs on par with their academic needs. Furthermore, the schools prioritize the social and emotional needs of school staff to equip teachers and other staff members with the skills and resources necessary to support students’ social and emotional growth.
Additionally, the “curricular design and instructional practices [at the schools] integrate social emotional learning with academics through both content—what students learn—and process—how they learn it,” the report states. The three high schools designate specific times for students to receive direct instruction on social emotional skills. They also emphasize project-based learning to allow students to practice and apply their social emotional skills through collaborative group projects in their classrooms and communities. This systemic approach to SEL benefits students more than a programmatic approach since it provides regular opportunities for students to practice and refine their social emotional skills and continuously reinforces SEL in comprehensive ways.
“A growing body of research shows that when schools attend to students’ psychological, social, and emotional development alongside academic learning, student engagement and academic achievement improve,” Hamedani writes in her blog post. “While we can’t clearly prove direct cause and effect between the schools’ social emotional and social justice skill building and positive student responses, our findings suggest these approaches hold promise.”
Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate, and Empower Youth is available at https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/publications/pubs/1310.