Whole Child = SEL in Action
August 3, 2018
Readiness. Quality. Equity.
These heady words are shorthand for big, complex ideas that, when activated, can change the odds that children, especially our most vulnerable children, will get the opportunities they need to succeed in life. Child and youth advocates use these words a lot. But we do not always use them together. Or, to be more precise, we do not always bind them together. We sprinkle the ones we aren’t really focused on into our messages to add flavor. But we don’t take the time to examine and expose the root causes – historic and systemic – that make it impossible to make lasting progress without addressing all three goals all of the time in all of the places where young people grow and learn.
For the past five years, I’ve been on a mission to find hooks – data, visuals, stories, reports — that lure people in and make them want to better understand why these words should be bound together and bolster our confidence that we can figure out how to do so.
One of the most straightforward recommendations for figuring out how to meld these three goals came from Jonathan Raymond at the first convening of the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development. Jonathan is the President of the Stuart Foundation, former superintendent of the Sacramento Public Schools, and author of Wildflowers: A Superintendent’s Challenge to America. His advice:
“Make every decision from the perspective of what is best for children.”
Putting children and youth at the center is easy to say, but very hard to do. This may be one of the reasons, frankly, that when polled educators prefer specific descriptors like “social and emotional learning” (SEL) and “life skills” to open-ended ones like “whole child” and “youth development.” Jonathan’s language, however, was as expansive as his vision. Over the course of a few conversations, I learned that he not only understood but fully embraced the implications of bringing a whole child approach into a high poverty city and an underfunded district.
I learned that at inflection points where many would cut services, Jonathan expanded them, finding creative ways to offer students and families more choices, more arts, more services, more home visits, more after-school and summer programs, more access. And he applied our three heady words as filters to guide each decision: readiness (is this supporting academic, social and emotional development?), quality (is this replicating the best the district has to offer?) and equity (is it not only reaching but actually starting with the kids and families most in need?).
Needless to say, I was intrigued. So I asked for examples. I got a draft manuscript – a personal accounting of Jonathan’s efforts to put the words “whole child/whole community” into action over the course of his four plus years as Sacramento superintendent. I read it twice, sent back pages of notes, and offered to write the introduction. I shared the next draft with my colleagues at the Forum and at Education Northwest to see if they shared my enthusiasm. Could Jonathan’s story of what they accomplished in Sacramento be the hook that seamlessly binds readiness, quality and equity together and emboldens all of us to talk about engaging the whole community to support the whole child? I got a resounding “yes.”
“Wildflowers,” as the book came to be called, is more than a memoir but less than a manual. It is an inspirational story chock full with real implementation challenges. It reads, in tone, like a business book – short, accessible, example-rich guidance on solving a linked set of problems that are limiting potential success. The difference – and this is a big difference – is that the examples are all a part of one interconnected story. The story of one leader in one system in one place using his position to redefine how schools work with their community to support kids. Reflecting on his own lessons learned, he challenges other superintendent to take a similar approach, and challenges the community to be bolder in holding education leaders accountable.
So we have a new hook. “Wildflowers” powerfully exemplifies the Forum’s tagline – moving ideas to impact. But more than a hook, we have an opportunity. How do we take the richness of Jonathan’s story and use it as a springboard to inspire and capture more stories of real leaders – nationally and locally – who are moving “whole child/whole community” ideas to impact. And as this energy is unleashed, how do we leverage it? Move the power of stories through our outreach and engagement strategies? Use them as illustrations that help us more effectively “make the case” and innovate?
With the encouragement and financial support of the Stuart Foundation – a team committed to the power of story and turning one story into many – we have deconstructed the book itself. We’ve created an index, identified themes, coded stories, pulled quotes, and developed handouts, table questions and facilitator guides. We’ve created lists of additional resources and organizations that anyone inspired by the stories should be encouraged to review.
Last week, we tested the ideas, storytelling and resources in “Wildflowers” with a variety of whole child champions, youth development and education leaders and partners in policy, research and philanthropy. We hosted an intimate salon-style dinner discussion, a 125-person luncheon and a small group Q&A – a rather elaborate book club! One participant likened reading the book to going on a site visit – a kind of bonding, visceral experience a group can use to ground them in core principles.
We’re hopeful that the power of story – Jonathan’s and others – will help groups examine their own work, reflect on their personal stories and map out their collective journey using a whole child approach to advance readiness, improve quality and ensure equity. The aim of all of these facilitation materials, the story-sharing and resources is to support superintendents and community members who are committed to action.
While not prescribing a how-to manual, Jonathan does lay out an interesting to-do list of district-wide commitments and actions resulting from the commitment that he, his team and their partners made to a whole child approach. I’ve highlighted some themes that have long been core to the Forum’s work:
- Focus on excellence and giving students and families opportunities to choose from a portfolio of schools, including high-performing charter schools and fully redesigned schools, such as the Waldorf-inspired elementary-middle school.
- Expand the school calendar through innovative summer learning and afterschool programs.
- Link kids to services to address basic needs such as dental and medical care.
- Educate the heart and the hands as well as the head in school and out, and integrate social and emotional learning in all interactions and instruction.
- Prioritize family and relationships, introducing Parent Resource Centers, and strengthening the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Program.
- Promote youth voice and leadership.
- Maintain and increase access to enrichment, including music and the arts, organic gardening, leadership training with the Navy SEALs, and more.
- Create healthy, green school environments, through changes in the cafeteria and Project Green, a program that engaged teams of students, parents and school staff in auditing and making recommendations for environmental improvements to aged facilities.
- Foster inclusion for students with disabilities.
With other whole child champions like Jonathan, we’ll help keep the conversation going on each of these topics.
I began this blog by noting that Jonathan and I met at a SEAD Commission meeting. Where does social and emotional learning fit in? The push to intentionally integrate social and emotional learning into the missions of schools provides a powerful opportunity to elevate discussions about readiness (i.e., life success requires more than academic preparation) and quality (i.e., the context for learning is as important as the content). Most importantly, however, it provides a new opportunity to talk about equity. This last link, however, has been more challenging.
Calls to address social and emotional learning, especially in a school context, can be too easily translated into calls to implement an SEL curriculum, do a school climate survey or introduce more professional development for teachers – components, perhaps, but not a “whole school” approach. Calls to flip the language – and acknowledge that learning is social and emotional – help. The SEAD Commission is to be applauded for flipping the language to emphasize the need to build adult capacity to teach and reinforce social and emotional skills and create positive learning environments in which young people feel socially accepted and emotionally safe. When these thresholds aren’t met, learning – any type of learning – is diminished. Educators can and do try to make sure these thresholds are met in the classroom. But their jobs are doubly difficult if they don’t look at each school setting (the cafeteria, the bus, the extracurriculars) or if they know little about the other environments in which young people live, learn, work or play.
Superintendents, principals and other educators play an essential role in helping the community envision the full menu of learning opportunities in which SEL can and should be modeled, taught, practiced and rewarded. Working with community, they can promote whole child education which, according to Jonathan, is “SEL in action.”