What’s Next for Social-Emotional Learning in Massachusetts

| Written by Chad d’Entremont, Executive Director, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy

Each year, my organization looks at 25 key indicators of student progress in Massachusetts. From kindergarten enrollment to college graduation rates, the Rennie Center’s annual Condition of Education in the Commonwealth data report provides a snapshot of education in Massachusetts, tracking trends in student performance from year to year. Using this data, we are able to highlight areas in need of attention from policymakers.

Chad d'Entremont presenting on the Condition of Education in MA | 01.21.2016

Chad d'Entremont presenting on the Condition of Education in MA | 01.21.2016

Our research identified social-emotional learning (SEL) as a critical next step in education reform. A growing body of evidence points to the importance of teaching children how to manage their emotions and behaviors. SEL, the development of non-cognitive skills like self-motivation and grit, is linked to better academic performance, higher college retention rates, increased employment, and better overall health and well-being.

From early education through college, SEL needs be integrated into every school, every classroom, and every lesson.  And Massachusetts is primed for this approach to take root. Our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth action guide takes a look at the potential next steps at each stage of the education pipeline.

Early Education

Setting a foundation for SEL in early education is critical. Teaching young children how to self-regulate, engage in learning activities, and interact positively with others, gives them the base they need to succeed in school and continue developing social-emotional skills throughout their lives. 

Massachusetts has already built an important foundation for effective SEL practices in early childhood programs. Last year, the state approved a new set of SEL standards for preschool and kindergarten students.  In addition, full-day kindergarten programs are required to assess all incoming students on several domains, including SEL skills. 

This is a good start. The next step is to expand on this good work and give all early educators tools to assess social-emotional development. This will help teacher’s inform instruction and identify early risk factors. We also need to create more seamless, sustainable funding for early childhood education and provide educators with professional development opportunities that focus on family engagement, because so much social and emotional development happens at home.

The New Bedford Birth to Grade 3 Alignment Partnership is a great example for reform. This alliance of public preschool educators, community-based providers, and representatives from public housing, mental health, the libraries, and arts organizations is working to expand access to early education while creating a network of support for parents and educators. The alliance has made strides in addressing literacy, social-emotional skills, and parent engagement while helping educators collaborate and share data and promising practices.

Elementary and Secondary Education

Social-emotional learning doesn’t stop when children enter kindergarten. In fact, educators across the grade spectrum can learn from the example set in early childhood programs by developing proactive systems that increase student engagement and set the stage for success in college and beyond.

Massachusetts has already taken strides to improve school climate and address the mental and behavioral health of students in schools through several pieces of recent legislation. While steps in the right direction, these guidelines have been implemented unevenly across the state. Ensuring more proactive and comprehensive social-emotional support for students statewide will require a coordinated vision and dedicated resources and attention. The next step is for the state to provide protocols and guidance to districts when it comes to addressing SEL. 

Newton Public Schools has developed a cohesive approach to social-emotional learning. The district has trained teachers and administrators in SEL practices and established a centralized Department of Social Emotional Learning, placing the initiative on par with academic priorities. By focusing on schoolwide consistency, integrated practice, community partnerships, and comprehensive data, Newton’s SEL initiative is seeing promising outcomes, including increased attendance, a drop in suspensions, and improved student perceptions of safety. 

College and Career Success

In an ever-changing global economy, employers want workers who can think critically, solve problems and adapt quickly. As more and more jobs become automated, ones that require both technical and interpersonal skills are still in demand.  The latest research on college and career success identifies a crucial set of social-emotional competencies—such as the abilities to set and achieve goals, self-motivate, monitor progress, seek help, and persist through challenges—that strongly predict achievement beyond high school.

Panelists discussing the Condition of Education in MA | 01.21.2016

Panelists discussing the Condition of Education in MA | 01.21.2016

Massachusetts leaders know how important social-emotional skills are to student success. The new statewide definition of college and career readiness places social-emotional development front and center—highlighting its importance for all students, whatever their postsecondary plans. However, the next step is supporting and resourcing districts so that they can best determine how to integrate SEL into their college and career preparation curricula. Massachusetts has several promising models including programs that give high school students the opportunity to take credit-bearing college courses or gain real-world experiences through jobs or internships.

LEAP for Education’s college preparation programs put an emphasis on SEL. The organization, which is focused on improving college and career outcomes for low-income and first generation students, helps participants prepare for the future by focusing on both academic and social-emotional skills. Students build skills vital to success in college and the workforce, such as stress management, time management, goal setting, and developing healthy relationships.

Educating the whole child at each stage of development is critical to our education system and to the preparation of tomorrow’s workforce. While Massachusetts leads the nation in traditional academic subjects, we are lagging behind when it comes to policies that help our students develop socially and emotionally. But given the current policy environment, I think this next frontier in education is within reach.

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