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Darling-Hammond: Research Backs SEL as Pathway to Academic Achievement

By Jacqueline Hyman |

With the theme of this year’s National Conference on Education being Social Emotional Learning: Focusing on the Total Child, the closing keynote speech by Linda Darling-Hammond was right on topic.

Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, presented the science behind how attention to social and emotional needs improves learning. 

“Your [conference] theme for this year suggests the social emotional pathway is the pathway to learning rather than a distraction from it,” Darling-Hammond said, a point that AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech emphasized in his remarks to close out the two-day virtual affair.

In her presentation at the conference’s 3rd General Session on Friday, Feb. 19, the prominent education researcher noted several supports for this argument, such as language and communication between people generating thinking, relationships as catalysts for healthy development and learning and students’ perceptions of their own abilities.

“This one is critically important,” she said about the latter. “In a setting in which there’s been a history of … testing that labels some students above and some below, and engages in ability grouping or tracking, that essentially tells some students that they are less able to learn. They take in that perception and it actually undermines the process of learning itself.”

Darling-Hammond also emphasized that adversity affects learning, meaning effective schools must be trauma-informed and healing-focused. This means teachers need to learn strategies to help students heal from trauma, and schools need to create positive social environments.

“So many of our students are experiencing the stresses of the pandemic, of the situations they’re experiencing at home. It’s going to be very important as they come back to schools,” to help them deal with these issues, she added.

Importantly, she said, the first thing to do is affirm students’ value. Students need to feel academically and socially respected, accepted and included. Studies show that SEL leads to positive outcomes for students, she added, such as increased executive function, perseverance and resilience.

“Those can’t be left to chance. The more we explicitly teach these skills and infuse them in all areas throughout the school day … we see more safety, more belonging more community and better achievement,” said Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University.

As head of the education transition team for the Biden administration, Darling-Hammond said the new president is committed to the mental, emotional and physical well-being of students. She said a “Road to Recovery” COVID-19 relief plan, which emphasizes mental health and SEL supports, learning recovery and engaging summer programming, is currently being negotiated on Capitol Hill.

Biden has committed, she said, to investing in universal prekindergarten, reinventing high schools, making college affordable and doubling support for career and technical education.

She said, “This is an administration that cares about the way we support adults in schools and children to be in safe, purposeful well-supported settings.”

(Jacqueline Hyman is a senior reporter for Conference Daily Online and senior editorial assistant with School Administrator magazine.)

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