Despite the rise of high-stakes testing in K–12 education as a means to compare students’ academic proficiency, an inconvenient detail continues to hold true: Student grades, not their scores on standardized tests, remain the best predictor for achievement in high school and beyond. This is because grades do much more than assess a student’s mastery of the curriculum; they reflect a student’s ability to delay gratification and focus on studying, cooperate effectively during group work, manage their time, and ask for help. In short, grades reflect a student’s social-emotional competence to a much larger extent than standardized tests do. It is this competence that creates the link to positive life outcomes.
Instilling social-emotional competence is a core mission of The Urban Assembly, a network of 21 middle schools and high schools serving more than 9,000 students in high-poverty areas of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn in New York. Our mission is to graduate students with the academic and life skills necessary to succeed in careers that offer economic and social mobility. Inherent in this mission is the idea that our students will need more than content knowledge to be successful. This idea is reinforced by a 2015 Workforce Connections report sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Education that listed the top five “soft skills” that employers identified as “needs” for their workforce: social skills, communication skills, higher-order thinking, self-control, and positive self-concept.
Similarly, a University of Chicago report noted the “noncognitive” factors shaping school performance included: academic behaviors, academic perseverance, academic mindsets, learning strategies, and social skills. These school-related social-emotional skills encompass the same abilities that employers value and that predict life success. They are the nonacademic component of student grades, and principals who prioritize these skills in their schools will see greater student success than principals who do not.
Consider these five strategies when implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) in your school:
1. Create an SEL Framework
A good SEL program starts with a solid framework. The Urban Assembly partnered with Fordham University’s School of Social Service and Aperture Education to develop an SEL framework in our middle and high schools called the “Resilient Scholars Program.” Its four tenets are direct instruction, integration, assessment, and supports for implementation and sustainability.
2. Select Effective SEL Curricula
Integration is important, but explicit instruction of SEL skills is paramount. We use the School-Connect curriculum to teach skills such as problem solving and perspective taking, and ideas like valuing an education and responsibility. Teaching these skills explicitly over four years ensures students can internalize these ideas and use them throughout their lives to achieve success.
3. Create a Matrix for Integrating SEL Throughout the Day
To ensure that SEL is intentionally embedded within the school day, we created a social-emotional learning program matrix, which identifies approaches in our schools that develop students’ social-emotional skills. We map these approaches onto SEL competencies, such as relationship skills and decision making. This provides a clear understanding of how different activities—such as asking students to reflect on their active listening during a group project—teach and reinforce the students’ social-emotional competencies.
4. Assess Students’ SEL Competencies
We use Evo Social/Emotional, an online SEL assessment and intervention system from Aperture Education. It uses the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), a strengths-based measure of the SEL competencies: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationships, optimistic thinking, goal-directed behavior, personal responsibility, and decision making. The assessment provides a profile of students’ social-emotional strengths and challenges, which helps us develop supports for students at the schoolwide, small group, and individual levels.
SEL assessments have been extremely helpful because they provide a concrete understanding of students’ social-emotional strengths and challenges. For example, a seventh-grade student at The Urban Assembly Unison School was having trouble with his grades, so his teachers got together to try to figure out why. Everyone had a different opinion, so every adult was prompting him in a different way, which was counterproductive.
Once the teachers reviewed the student’s academic data and DESSA assessment, they realized he needed support with the initiation and persistence of tasks of varying difficulty. When assignments were handed out, he simply wouldn’t start them. So, they figured out specific interventions to support his development around setting and completing goals. It was an incredible breakthrough for everyone that was based on using data to create a common lens from which to view and understand the students’ challenges.
5. Let Students Put SEL Skills Into Action
SEL skills support the development of constructive relationships and trust between students and teachers, which allows school administrators to empower students to sit in the driver’s seat. An example of this can be seen at The Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, a high school in Manhattan. When students asked for more “hallway time” to interact with each other, we agreed and scheduled a 15-minute class break in late morning specifically for that purpose. This could easily have turned into a madhouse, but we’ve had minimal incidents because we gave students ownership of the idea and activity.
We tasked students with creating a “social contract” for the break time and getting buy-in from their peers. This made a huge difference. If the school administration had set the rules—told students where to stand or how to act—it would have been a disaster. But by entrusting the task to students, it was an amazing success. If students have the opportunity to set parameters for social interactions, they often rise to the occasion, and in the process, learn skills that they will use throughout their lives.
Urban Assembly schools participating in the Resilient Scholars Program have seen a drastic reduction in suspension rates. UA Unison School’s suspension rate decreased by 25 percent, and its incident rate decreased by 75 percent within a year, including a huge decrease in incidences of insubordination, cursing at teachers, and other lower-level conflicts.
At UA Media High School, the suspension rates were cut in half during the 2015–16 school year, and again during the 2016–17 school year, including a drastic reduction in suspensions that were a result of fighting.
Perceptions of both trust and a supportive learning environment, as measured through the New York City Department of Education’s School Climate Survey, have increased, and teacher ratings involving questioning, discussion, and engagement have improved.
Teaching SEL skills also supports academic achievement. At UA Media, the percentage of ninth graders earning 10 or more credits (putting them on track for graduation) increased from 68.8 percent to 87.1 percent after the first year.
Our students will have to figure out how to get along with college instructors, roommates, bosses, and colleagues. They will have to face conflict, negotiate personalities, and work in teams while being able to communicate effectively to a diverse range of people.
School administrators should consider the advantages of looking at student grades as a proxy to these competencies, but—no matter what they take away from school academically—if we leave our students unprepared to build relationships, solve problems, and manage themselves effectively, they will not be adequately prepared to reach their full potential.
Using an SEL framework to prepare students for college and career has been one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
David Adams is director of social-emotional learning for The Urban Assembly in New York, NY. Cordelia Veve is principal of The Urban Assembly School for Media Studies in New York, NY. Emily Paige is principal of The Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn, NY. Kiri Soares is principal of The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women in Brooklyn, NY.