Two charter networks, Uplift Education and Distinctive Schools, have provided models for supporting social-emotional learning (SEL) that other schools should emulate. As a recent report from Fordham illustrates, parents want schools to teach SEL, although they might have different ideas about what to call it. There has also been growing concern about students’ mental health needs during the pandemic. In response, Uplift and Distinctive, which both serve predominantly low-income and minority student populations, took a schoolwide, strategic, and student-centered approach to SEL.
Uplift surveyed students on their well-being during the first week of school last year. They found the biggest concerns from students across their twenty-one campuses were Covid-19 and family stress, and that students were struggling with virtual school and missing their friends and teachers. In response, they created the “Uplift 5,” which consisted of a warm greeting, emotional check-in, movement break, mindful minute, and optimistic closure, and asked teachers to use it every day. Uplift also used survey data to identify students who might need extra support. Unlike most public schools, Uplift employs dedicated mental health professionals at its schools to meet these students’ needs.
While Uplift created their social-emotional learning curriculum in-house, Distinctive Schools obtained much of theirs from an outside company, Move This World, which uses interactive videos, skills assessments, and surveys to encourage students’ social-emotional growth and monitor their progress. Every middle school student in the Distinctive network also has a weekly, fifteen-minute meeting with an adult mentor, and every Distinctive school integrates SEL data into their quarterly dashboard meetings.
The strongest link between these two programs is their commitment to making social-emotional learning a systemwide effort. For these charter organizations, SEL stretches beyond individual classrooms to encompass the entire organization. For example, these charters have hired administrative staff whose jobs revolve around the implementation of SEL, have strategically leveraged data on an organizational level to focus these efforts where they are needed most, and have even invested in their teachers’ SEL. As these schools have taken an organizational approach to implementation, it is important that the members of the organization have a shared commitment to SEL, and one way these charters accomplished that was through shared terminology.
Indeed, one finding from the Fordham survey was the importance of the using the right words to describe this sort of education. For example, parents ranked the term “social-emotional learning” second to last out of a list of alternative titles for initiatives of that nature. Fordham’s Adam Tyner, the lead researcher for the report, parlayed these results into a greater lesson for those seeking to implement SEL in school districts and charter networks: They should keep the importance of language in mind.
This and its relationship to buy-in among stakeholders was not lost on Distinctive Schools and Uplift Education, who both developed a shared understanding and their own definitions of social-emotional learning. This helped them align their values and the goals they hoped to accomplish with their SEL initiatives. Likewise, this shared terminology helped buy-in among teachers and parents.
Though minor changes to terminology may seem trivial to some, the Fordham survey has shown that language can have a tremendous impact on attitudes toward social-emotional learning. Uplift Education and Distinctive Schools demonstrate how SEL can be implemented effectively when efforts extend beyond the classroom and become school-wide and organizational. When all stakeholders are involved, SEL transforms from what can be seen as an add-on to schooling to a useful and valuable subject in its own right. But a necessary component of doing so is getting everyone in the network onboard and using the same terminology.