By Kim Davenport, MKEA Regional Coordinator for the Central Region
Transitions are all around us. As educators we focus on transitions for children – keeping to schedules, shifting across curriculum topics, and transitioning to snack, lunch, recess, specials…and home again. Within our classrooms and buildings we can be in perpetual transition – new processes, examining and implementing new techniques and curriculum models, managing a host of new and continuing priorities at the state and district level. Deep breath…again…deep breath…
It is important to also step back and examine where we are as a learning community and as a Commonwealth striving to nurture and develop our youngest citizens. How are we doing? Where must we head next? Where should we focus our efforts?
In late January, the Rennie Center released findings answering those key questions in its 2016 report, “Condition of Education in the Commonwealth: Toward a More Comprehensive Vision of Student Learning.” The report covers a number of topics, but the focus is on social-emotional development and learning, a foundational element to students’ personal and academic success. And it contains a heavy emphasis on how social-emotional learning is embedded across our curriculum and learning environments.
In short, the report outlines four (4) priorities that center on this topic:
Priority 1: Set a social-emotional foundation in early childhood
Priority 2: Build comprehensive K-12 systems of social-emotional support
Priority 3: Promote skills for college and career success
Priority 4: Equip educators to foster social-emotional wellbeing
As educators, we have long understood the necessary link between social-emotional skills and academic and life success. And research continues to reveal its increasing relevance. As Harvard’s Nonie Lesaux noted in a panel discussion accompanying the release of the report, “Cognitive and non-cognitive skills are inextricably linked. There’s a growing consensus in education that children can’t develop strong cognitive skills without non-cognitive “soft skills” such as focus, persistence, and getting along with others. Indeed, the two categories of skills may be more linked than we realize.”
The great news is that we are on our way to tackling several of these priorities. The MKEA initiative brought a spotlight to social-emotional learning, something educators shared was critical and lacking in current curriculum and assessment protocols. And the state continued its focus from there. Our new PreK – K Early Learning Standards for Social-Emotional and Approaches to Play and Learning clearly articulate what to expect and how to foster social-emotional competency in children. Equally exciting is that we are looking across settings – preK and K for now – and soon upper grades. We also are embracing how these skills are developed inside of rich, authentic, and engaging curriculum, not as a separate block of time, text, or instructional period. Finally, we have tools to help us examine each child’s development and then individualize instruction to support growth and learning. Skills of observation coupled with frameworks and tools for formative assessment provide us with the best picture of a child’s development in this arena. Finally, something we can dig into with confidence!
The researchers made another important note, “These findings do not point toward a reduced focus on academics; rather we see that when school thoughtfully combine a rigorous academic program with social-emotional supports tailored to students’ developmental needs, they do a better job at helping students access rich academic content and set a foundation for long-term success.”
So, our work will continue to build an understanding of each child’s social-emotional development and then make connections across our curriculum and within our learning environments to strengthen children’s skills and provide opportunities to practice resilience, problem-solving, and self-regulation in hands-on meaningful ways. This focus will no doubt increase our satisfaction as educators: we can go deep here and finally teach the whole child.