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Stanford study describes how diverse high schools successfully implement social emotional learning

Artwork by students at the International School of the Americas, which was one of the schools studied by SCOPE researchers. (Photo: SCOPE report)
Artwork by students at the International School of the Americas, which was one of the schools studied by SCOPE researchers. (Photo: SCOPE report)

Stanford study describes how diverse high schools successfully implement social emotional learning

Researchers found schools must integrate social justice education with social-emotional learning to be most effective and empowering for students.

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. What is less well understood is how practices that address these needs can be implemented on a school-wide basis, especially at the high school level.

A new study produced by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) and funded by the NoVo Foundation addresses implementation of social emotional learning strategies at the high school level and how they can be tuned to meet the needs of students in diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic contexts. 

The study, Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate, and Empower Youth, looks at effective social emotional learning practices at three socioeconomically and racially diverse small public high schools located in Boston, Brooklyn, and San Antonio. Through in-depth case studies, a student survey, and a comparison of student survey results to a national sample of students, the authors investigate the ways in which these schools design, implement, and practice school-wide social emotional learning, and its effect on students' educational experiences and outcomes.

For school-wide implementation to be particularly effective and empowering for diverse student communities, the authors found that schools must integrate social justice education approaches along with social emotional learning. While social emotional learning can foster students’ capacity to know themselves, build and maintain supportive relationships, and participate in their school communities as socially responsible citizens, social justice education integrates culturally-relevant, asset-based, identity-safe, and empowerment-oriented practices that have been shown to improve outcomes for traditionally underserved students, including low-income students and students of color. 

"Research shows that while meeting students' psychological, social, and emotional needs is important for all students, doing it effectively requires understanding what this means for diverse student communities," said MarYam Hamedani, Associate Director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and the project director on the study.

"While psychological supports alone cannot make up for the learning challenges of high-poverty contexts, nor eliminate the challenges faced by historically underserved students, they can mitigate the effects and make achievement possible," Hamedani said.

By attending to these needs as well as academic content, schools can foster trust, safety, and community among students and adults in the school; change students’ beliefs about education and themselves as learners; reduce the threat of stereotypes and biases about students’ potential and ability; and enable students to cultivate skills that render education meaningful and relevant.

"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, Stanford University Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education and SCOPE Faculty Director. "Each of the schools in this study has developed ways to implement these approaches successfully." 

Following are some key recommendations for practice and policy from the study. 

•    Erase the cognitive/non-cognitive divide in education. Academic, social, and emotional factors are essentially interwoven, mutually interdependent, and should not be considered in isolation from one another. They are critical to all students’ opportunity to learn, but also matter in particular ways for students of color and for students in low-income contexts. 

•    Leverage a “whole-child” perspective on student development. Education, more broadly, and social and emotional learning in particular, also needs to align with students’ key developmental pathways that evolve through their elementary, middle school, and high school years. 

•    Leverage a “social justice education perspective” on social emotional learning. To ensure that social emotional learning is conceptualized, implemented, and practiced to effectively meet the needs of diverse student communities, educators must consider how to engage and empower, rather than manage and regulate, their students. 

•    Engage systemic, whole-school change. Social emotional learning will be most effective when practiced and implemented comprehensively and coherently across key levels of the school—climate and culture, features and structures, and formal and informal practices—as well as when its practice is supported by districts. 

•    Teach social emotional skills explicitly and ensure that they are reflected and reinforced by school practices. Schools can do this by locating a place in the curriculum, possibly in advisory class, where students and teachers can develop and practice key skills and competencies. 

•    Include a social emotional perspective in curricular and assessment policies. Students are motivated, engaged, and responsible when their education is connected to who they are and what they care about. Curricula should be relevant, real world, and socially oriented. Assessment practices should reinforce the development of social emotional skills, enable students to apply what they learn in relevant ways, and reflect the ways in which learning is collaborative and interactional. 

•    Establish restorative approaches to discipline through practices that preserve relationships, respect dignity, and provide psychological support. Students of color and students in poverty are disproportionately affected by harsh or zero-tolerance policies, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline, which do nothing to address the chronic stressors that often result in behavioral issues for these students. 

•    Enable educators to become psychological, as well as academic, experts. Preservice teacher training programs, as well as teacher and administrator certification requirements and continuing education opportunities, need to provide educators with the skills they need to cultivate classrooms and schools that support students’ psychological, social, and emotional needs along with their academic needs.

>> Learn more about the full series — three case studies, a cross-case analysis, a technical report, research brief, and executive summary

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