Social-Emotional Learning at the Secondary Level

A study of five schools identifies the common elements for creating school cultures of ‘belonging and becoming’
By Kathleen Cushman/School Administrator, April 2016

Danny Lora (right), a 9th-grade teacher at East Side Community School in New York City, takes a free moment between classes to resolve an issue with one of his student advisees. (Photo by Andrew Reed Weller)
At 16, J.J. already had decided he would not go to college. An aspiring musician, he liked to create beats on the sound equipment he had set up at home. “I could work all night on a song, but I can’t do that with schoolwork,” he said. “Why do I need to figure out the area below a parabola?”

Nonetheless, J.J. (a pseudonym) kept coming to his New York City public school, which serves grades 6 through 12. Despite his ambivalence, he felt known and respected there — by peers, teachers and administrators. When his math class studied sine waves, he said, “They saw that I was doing that in music, and I was good.”

Before long, J.J. was helping a student group set up a recording studio in the school basement and eyeing a music production program at a nearby college.

Documenting Practices
From the earliest grades, schools have an impact on the social and emotional learning of students. Many elementary schools adopt programs that help children recognize their feelings, empathize with others and manage their frustration. But the developmental stage of adolescence presents new challenges for school leaders. In everything from academics to authority structures, these students are grappling with where they belong, what they value and what kind of person they want to become.

With funding from NoVo Foundation, my colleague Barbara Cervone and I recently documented how five U.S. public secondary schools supported that important process. In each of our study schools, leaders wove social and emotional learning into all aspects of the learning experience. Particulars varied according to local circumstances, but across the board we saw six common elements that fostered extraordinary school cultures of “belonging and becoming.”

»No. 1: A web of structural supports

Our study schools built internal structures to ensure that every student was known well. At Springfield Renaissance School, a district-run magnet school in Springfield, Mass., each student belongs to an advisory group called crew (from the slogan “We are crew, not passengers”). An adult adviser stays with the same 12 to 15 students from grades six through nine. For the high school years, students join a new crew.

Meeting daily during first period, crew is a credit-bearing class complete with learning targets and assessments; its curriculum combines social-emotional development with academic goal setting, advisement and support. College planning and career exploration take place there, as do community service and challenge activities. Teachers use a common checklist to make sure they are hitting all the expected goals.

“It’s a way of walking through the entire educational and socio-emotional experience with every child,” one teacher said about her school’s advisory program.

»No. 2: An intentional community

“You can take us out of East Side, but you can’t take East Side of us,” reads a student-made mural outside the main office at East Side Community School in New York City. That proved true when a structural collapse led to an emergency relocation of the school’s middle and high school to separate sites, where metal detectors replaced familiar norms of trust and responsibility. When their six-month exile ended, students and families gathered with East Side’s faculty and staff (including lunch workers and security officers) in a daylong art workshop that filled the school’s new gallery with their expressions of solidarity.

The schools we studied built intentional community in many ways. Each year at Oakland International High School in Oakland, Calif., which serves immigrant students, students and parents lead teachers and staff on a community walk that deepens school-family understanding and connections.

In every school we observed, leaders regularly brought students and faculty together for recognition or problem solving.

»No. 3: A culture of respect, participation and reflection

In classrooms, in hallways and on playing fields, we noticed all these schools using clear protocols as students practiced the habits of thoughtful people. At Quest Early College High School in the Humble Independent School District near Houston, all entering students sign a contract to participate respectfully in open exchanges of ideas, even when those conversations challenge their values and beliefs. Welcoming differences is an explicit norm. Whatever activity a group takes up, this school shows zero tolerance for exclusivity.

Adolescence brings a passion for fairness, and so all these schools drew youth into academic discourse about justice in their world. Whether young people are considering their First Amendment rights or the minimum wage, the belief that their thoughts and actions matter helps them feel valued, research shows.

We saw students in the direst circumstances adopting these frames of mind — first in behavioral challenges, then in intellectual ones.

»No. 4: A commitment to restorative practices

Students in these schools often took the lead in identifying respectful behavior norms, both among their peers and between adults and youth. When a breach harmed others, the school’s response prioritized positive alternatives to detention, suspension and expulsion.

Restorative practices, combined with coaching and counseling, instead modeled empathy and fostered resilience in students whose circumstances put them at risk. In a desperately poor and violent neighborhood of Chicago, the staff at Fenger High School learned to break down essential social skills (such as how to make an apology) into manageable parts. When infractions took place, they agreed with those involved on actions to redress harm. Advisory groups emphasized “solutionary” behaviors (such as how to ask for help when confused in class) and a “growth mindset” that saw mistakes as opportunities for new thinking.

»No. 5: A curriculum of connection and engagement

After studying the role of youth in the 1960s civil rights movement, students at Oakland International organized a whole-school teach-in about immigration reform issues that has gone down in local history. All of our study schools took pains to develop academic skills, such as reading, writing, research and mathematical or scientific analysis, through issues or projects that students cared about. Engagement further increased when students could exercise choice over the topic they explored or the form in which they would demonstrate mastery.

In one of the first project-based curriculum units at Springfield Renaissance School, the city’s facilities engineer asked the 9th-grade environmental science class to collect data and make a recommendation for energy conservation in the city’s school buildings. Students presented their “Greenprint” to the mayor and, by following their recommendations, the city has since saved many thousands of dollars in energy costs.

»No. 6: A focus on developing student agency

Successful outcomes for young adults go beyond educational attainment and gainful employment to include civic engagement, healthy relationships and physical and mental health. In setting goals for adolescent students, our study schools treated each of those areas as worthy of serious and sustained attention during the school day. Even more important, these schools helped students develop the crucial sense of agency — a resolute and realistic belief that they could achieve those outcomes.

Each school’s key structures and practices encouraged adolescents to reflect on their values and to identify a purpose that mattered. They gave them practice in the knowledge, skills, behaviors and habits that would help them attain success. They helped them push past fear and stretch for something greater.

“You wanna be on that team,” declared Derek, 16. “You wanna help everybody else succeed, and you wanna succeed with them.”

That sense of belonging clearly bolstered the person he was becoming. “If we’re struggling, they’ll show us different ways to look at it,” he said with pride. “Basically, they’re treating us like family.”

Kathleen Cushman
is co-founder of the nonprofit What Kids Can Do in New York, N.Y., and co-author of Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2015). E-mail: Twitter: @kathleencushman