In January, I had the honor of attending an event in Washington DC  for the release of an important, new report: From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope: Recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.  

For the last two years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has collaborated closely with a group of foundations that have supported the Commission whose membership includes leaders from education, research, policy, business, and the military as well as educators, researchers, students, and families.

How Learning Happens

 “There is remarkable confluence of experience and science on one point: Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.”  In reaffirming that learning is social, emotional, and cognitive, the Commission identified the following dimensions of development that are critical to the long-term success of students:

  1. Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Skills and Competencies include cognitive elements such as executive function, perseverance, and goal-setting, social and interpersonal elements such as navigating social situations, conflict resolution, and cooperation, and emotional elements such as emotional regulation, stress management, and empathy towards others.
  2. Attitudes, Beliefs, and Mindsets include children’s and youth’s attitudes and beliefs about themselves, others, and their own circumstances. Examples include learning mindsets such as growth mindset, sense of belonging, and sense of purpose that address the fundamental role of the subjective, psychological experience of students in the learning process and how this experience is shaped by students’ identities and systemic inequalities in school and society.
  3. Character and Values represent ways of thinking and habits that support children and youth to work together as friends, family, and community. They encompass understanding, caring about, and acting on core ethical values such as integrity, honesty, compassion, diligence, civic and ethical engagement, and responsibility.

As part of Commission, the Council of Distinguished Scientists worked to synthesize over two decades of interdisciplinary research and concluded that, “the social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of learning are deeply linked. These skills grow and change over time, based on children’s environment and experiences, and can be taught.”  The evidence from their review suggests that these skills, competencies, and mindsets can have a positive impact on academic success and educational attainment, civic and community engagement, physical, family, and emotional well-being, and workforce and career readiness.

The Commission’s Recommendations

  1. Clear Vision – Set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child.
  2. Supportive Learning Environments – Transform learning settings so they are safe and supportive for all young people.
  3. Integration into the School Day – Change instruction to teach social, emotional, and cognitive skills and intentionally teach specific skills and competencies and infuse them in academic content and in all aspects of the school setting.
  4. Adult Support – Build adult expertise in child development and ensure educators develop understanding and expertise in child development and in the science of learning.
  5. Aligned Partners and Resources – Align resources and leverage partners in the community to address the whole child and build partnerships among schools, families, and community organizations to support healthy learning and development in and out of school; blend and braid resources to achieve this goal.
  6. Research and Practice – Forge closer connections between research and practice and bridge the divide between scholarly research and what’s actionable in schools and classrooms.

Implications for Our Work

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a now a formal area of focus in our K-12 strategy prioritizing aspects of SEL with the greatest impact on the postsecondary success of Black, Latino, and low-income students.  We’re looking for opportunities to integrate SEL into the daily practice in schools through areas such as core curriculum and college advisory and contribute to building the supports that help educators, schools, and systems implement high-quality SEL strategies.  

Helping schools create supportive learning environments and foster the development of strong relationships between students and adults is of critical importance. One of our first investments was to support the strategic plan for the Mindset Scholars Network, which is an interdisciplinary research network focused on advancing our scientific understanding of learning mindsets, a key component of SEL.  While we have much to learn, research has shown that attending to how students make meaning of their experiences in school is critical to building a strong foundation for learning. As such, this work has significant implications to ensure equity in school. 

As we look forward to 2019 and beyond, the Commission’s report sets a bold vision of student learning.  We’re excited to collaborate with the field and make productive contributions to the realization of this vision.

Brad Bernatek is a Senior Program Officer on the K-12 Education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focused on social emotional learning.  Prior to joining the Foundation, Brad served as a Director in FSG’s Education and Youth practice and Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment for Seattle Public Schools.