Teenage Brains Are Elastic. That’s a Big Opportunity for Social-Emotional Learning.
At Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, students know what to do when they face a mysterious math problem. Take a breath, recognize a “maze moment,” and retrace their steps to find an alternative to their temporary dead end.
It’s a simple idea: learning as navigation, choosing among concepts and strategies that either pave a path forward or trap you in the puzzle at hand. But these “maze moments” at Harvest, along with a half-dozen other schools in New York City that have adopted the theme, give teenagers a new way to understand and articulate their roles as not-yet-perfect masters in school and in life. Instead of a frustrated “I don’t get it,” students can visualize their position in the maze: what they’ve learned so far, what they don’t yet know, and how they might persist past this current challenge to chart a different path and solve the problem.
SEL can be a critical set of strategies to advance educational equity, by supporting the development of all students, including those who have learning differences, are growing up in poverty or are otherwise affected by adversity
This is the language of social-emotional learning, a holistic understanding of the richly human context in which students develop and grow.
Social-emotional learning, or SEL, encompasses the broad spectrum of skills, attitudes and values that promote success in school and in life, things like managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, persevering through adversity and working in a team. It explicitly acknowledges the importance of mindset and the fundamentally interpersonal project of education, in which knowledge is developed through a series of trusting relationships between teachers, students and peers. And it can be a critical set of strategies to advance educational equity, by supporting the development of all students, including those who have learning differences, are growing up in poverty or are otherwise affected by adversity.
Supporting such learning is an explicit priority of the Education program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which seeks to advance systems and opportunities that ensure all students reach adulthood with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to participate in democracy and thrive in the global economy. SEL is one of a suite of strategies the Corporation supports to position young people to experience success after high school graduation—especially those who have not traditionally been well served.
“Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Saskia Levy Thompson, a program director at the Corporation’s Education program, where she manages the New Designs to Advance Learning portfolio. “You can’t actually function in a purely academic zone without also developing the sensibilities, orientations, behaviors and strategies that all of us use to navigate our everyday lives.”
This type of thinking and teaching, which took a back seat to the academic standards-based accountability movement of the past 30 years, is now on the rise. The 2015 federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, shifted broad decision-making power to the state level and gave states new sources of financial support to promote social-emotional learning. In addition, the growing imperative to meet workforce needs for so-called “soft skills,” such as solving unfamiliar problems and collaborating with diverse colleagues, has prompted more than a dozen states to consider new laws to explore or fund expanded SEL programs since 2017.
A call to action was broadcast in 2018 in A Nation at Hope, the culminating report of the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. That project explored the opportunities and barriers for educators and decision-makers looking to thread SEL throughout their work. A Council of Distinguished Scientists, including educators, neuroscientists and psychologists, concluded that teaching social and emotional skills is essential to students’ success. Hundreds of interviews across the country revealed widespread commitment to social, emotional, and academic learning—in other words, to educating the whole child.
It’s an agenda with particular promise for adolescent students—a group whose developmental needs are often overlooked when it comes to educational improvement. The potential for social-emotional learning to transform teenage growth is undeniable. An emerging understanding of brain development has revealed a remarkable period of elasticity during adolescence—nearly a second infancy, and a second chance to capitalize on rapid change to build the habits of mind that support a thriving adulthood. And it all comes at a moment when students are taking their initial steps toward adult independence, with all the risk and reward that entails.
But what does that look like on the ground? What’s the right strategy with a roomful of distracted ninth graders on a rainy Wednesday morning? What question, expectation, experience, or assignment will help hardwire their brains to think critically?
The ‘Joyful Struggle’
If you learn to lean into discomfort and learn to accept that being uncomfortable is an essential part of growth and learning, you are going to be really primed to learn.Toddy Dickson
Consider Valor Collegiate, a small network of three high-performing charter schools in Nashville, Tennessee. It was designed and built from the ground up with social-emotional learning as its core mission, sharing equal billing with enrolling a socioeconomically diverse study body and achieving academic performance in the top 1 percent. Its schools have hit those benchmarks, including by appearing at the top of both Nashville and Tennessee school-performance reports since first opening in 2014.
Valor’s social-emotional learning goals are established in its Compass Framework, which identifies the disciplines and habits necessary to empower its diverse community of students to live “inspired and purposeful lives,” such as defining and articulating their identity and learning to be mindful, including holding their attention when required. Through the Compass Phase System, students assess their skills, study and set goals for character building, earn badges based on relevant experiences and share stories of that growth during weekly group check-ins called “Circles.” Teachers also participate in the Compass Framework and weekly staff Circles.
The meetings are highly structured, but the agenda responds to participants’ needs that day. In a meeting featured in a school film about the program, a student begins by saying, “Hi, my name is Aidan. I feel a little bit stressed and just like, kind of off … usually when I don’t take my ADHD medication, my brain kind of wanders.”
The faculty member leading the Circle, Coach McNeal, asks the group, “Can we get about two or three people to make commitments to just check in with Aidan in the hallways?” Hands go up. “So let’s send Aidan some love and support.” In response, members of the group hold up a hand sideways and gently wag their fingers in a gesture of affirmation.
Aidan stands in the center of the Circle, and a classmate thanks him for his candor: “When you told us about why you were ‘off’—it just really helps for us to give you support.” Another offers a gentle hug.
The schools’ shared focus on academics and social-emotional learning is a powerful combination, says founder Todd Dickson, a former charter school teacher and principal who leads the network with his twin brother, Daren, an adolescent counselor.
“Our theory is that when kids learn how to really be vulnerable and get rewarded with connection, that is a recipe for building courage, the super habit for learning and growth,” he explains. “If you learn to lean into discomfort—we sometimes call that process ‘joyful struggle’—and learn to accept that being uncomfortable is an essential part of growth and learning, you are going to be really primed to learn. There is also a core communal piece where kids feel comfortable with each other and therefore are more willing to take academic risks.”