“Focus on social-emotional learning” an Op-Ed by Jared in the Daily Item

(from September 11, 2015)

As students and teachers return to school this week, the state Board of Education is still deciding whether to adopt a new test to replace the MCAS. Education policymakers have been hearing a lot on that issue from teachers and parents, including many in Lynn. That input has highlighted broader concerns about over-testing in our schools.

Those same education policymakers have also been hearing from the business community about difficulties finding employees with the right soft skills. The North Shore Workforce Investment Board’s latest Labor Market Blueprint reported a construction employer’s trouble finding “people with good interpersonal skills and work ethic.”

Taso Nikolakopolous, owner of John’s Roast Beef and Chair of the Lynn Area Chamber of Commerce, sees more student workers struggling with the chaotic customer service environment of short order cooking.

There is a common thread to this feedback from educators and business leaders (something also highlighted by a syndicated editorial the Item ran earlier this week) – our public schools need to focus on students’ social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning is also called non-cognitive skill development or even character-building. When a student feels overwhelmed or frustrated, how does he or she react? How can students work well with one another? What’s their relationship like with their community and its civic life? What needs of a student are not being met and how can that be fixed?

Teachers have always known how important it is to help their students find answers to these questions. Increasing social-emotional learning doesn’t take away from students gaining traditional knowledge; it makes them better learners. But educators worry about being able to spend time on social-emotional learning because of the growth in testing.

Research on social-emotional learning has confirmed its value and shown that schools can increase it. One study by nationally recognized economics professors concluded that non-cognitive skills were just as predictive of later career success as cognitive skills. An analysis of more than 200 social-emotional learning programs found that students of all ages had fewer behavior problems, got better grades and did better on achievement tests.

Thankfully, Lynn public schools are already do a lot to develop social-emotional learning.

Our schools have successful sports teams and award-winning art and music programs. Students work on meaningful, group projects like the “Living in Two Worlds” documentary series put on by immigrant students at Lynn Classical and Lynn English as well as Lynn Tech’s nationally successful Skills USA team. Elementary schools have programs for emotional development in the classroom and on the playground.

Still, there’s more we can do. Adding resources is the obvious way to expand and build on these programs, offering more programs districtwide or hiring more social workers for instance. While we work to make that possible, here are some ideas that would require smaller investments.

Older students who work could present to younger students about the skills they need to do well in different situations they encounter in their jobs. Schools that give students community service citations could add a special category for students who worked on a project together as a team.

The Lynn Public Schools District could add to its curriculum guides a detailed list of the social-emotional skills we want our children to be learning at each grade level with input from teachers, health care providers, parents, and, for the older grades, employers. That would remind teachers what to look for and give teachers from different departments, like math and music, a shared language to discuss their students’ development.

Lynn faces a lot of challenges in its public schools – poverty, language barriers, inequality. Those challenges make it all the more important for us to be a leader on social-emotional learning. Resiliency is exactly the type of social-emotional skill that our students develop by necessity, so we already have a lot to celebrate and build on in our students and the district’s efforts to date. That’s important to remember with all the focus on testing and the pressure that puts on a district like Lynn.

And area employers like Taso are asking for it, for our schools to build students’ social-emotional skills. That confirms this is not a nice-to-have for schools with the time, but rather a key strategy for the well-being of our students, our community and our local economy.

Jared Nicholson is a candidate for the Lynn School Committee. He is an attorney at Northeast Legal Aid in Lynn, where he provides free legal help to small businesses that can’t afford it to help them get started and grow in Lynn.