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Social skills crucial to success in life beyond the classroom

05/03/16

First published in the San Francisco Examiner

When students practice working in teams with expert guidance from teachers, they learn to collaborate, communicate and resolve conflicts. When they develop their ability to identify and manage their emotions, they are more able to persevere when faced with challenges.

Growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management and social awareness: These behaviors are crucial to doing well in school and in life. So we teach them while also teaching math and reading.

At the San Francisco Unified School District, we care so much about these skills that we hold our schools accountable to teach them—in education speak, we call them "social and emotional competencies." It’s part of our School Quality Improvement Index (SQII), which measures not only a school’s academic achievements, but its students' social-emotional learning (SEL) and the overall school climate.

You may be thinking, “You can’t ‘test’ these kinds of things.” I couldn’t agree more. We don’t test students on whether they have a growth mindset. We gather data from several places.

We survey students on how they think about themselves as a learner and if they feel safe. We track their absenteeism. We take a look at the number of suspensions at each school. We also ask families detailed questions about their experiences and observations. Our social-emotional measures are intentionally weighted low on our index because this is new, and we will see how these affect overall Index scores over time. We do not use any of these measurements to evaluate teachers.

Research tells us SEL yields academic, social and emotional benefits for students. Analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in schools has shown us things like:

  • Better academic performance: achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive SEL instruction;
  • Improved attitudes and behaviors: greater motivation to learn, deeper commitment to school, increased time devoted to schoolwork and better classroom behavior;
  • Fewer negative behaviors: decreased disruptive class behavior, noncompliance, aggression, delinquent acts and disciplinary referrals; and
  • Reduced emotional distress: fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress and social withdrawal.

We’ve only just begun. SFUSD and a handful of other districts—we are part of CORE, a nonprofit organization that provides collaboration between nine California school districts—are pioneers in creating a more holistic school accountability system.

And it just makes sense. We believe in teaching the whole child.

Holding ourselves accountable for social-emotional learning, along with rigorous academics, we go way beyond looking at test scores to make sure we are doing our job.