Class is starting at Boston Green Academy, but you won’t hear students whispering, unzipping backpacks, or tapping pens on desks. Instead, they sit in silence, focusing on their breath. It might seem like a brief pause before the lesson begins but, in fact, the learning is already underway. The students are doing a mindfulness exercise to build concentration and help them regulate their emotions—skills that are critical to success in school and life.

Cultivating mindfulness is one small part of an effort at Boston Green Academy, a grade 6–12 in-district charter school within Boston Public Schools, to promote young people’s social-emotional learning, or SEL. Each day begins with a meeting to set a welcoming tone and help students build relationships with adults and each other. Counselors lead mediation sessions in which students learn to resolve conflicts in constructive ways. The entire staff is trained to model interpersonal skills like being a good listener. “Every corner of the building is packed with opportunities and support,” says Headmaster Matt Holzer.

Interest in social-emotional skills—variously referred to as “noncognitive skills,” “21st-century skills,” and “character”—is growing in schools across the country. “There’s a lot of relatively new and quite compelling scientific evidence for the role of nonacademic skills in academic outcomes and broader life outcomes,” says Stephanie Jones, associate professor in human development and urban education advancement at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. 

A meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students found that those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs experienced an 11-percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared with those who did not. James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has found that social-emotional skills may be as important as or more important than IQ in determining future economic success. “That drives a different conversation in schools,” Jones says. 

Wallace Foundation Study

The conversation is now spreading from schools to district offices and beyond. In surveys and focus groups commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by market research firm Edge Research, K–12 educators and policymakers ranked SEL among their top priorities. In 2016, the Aspen Institute launched the two-year National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, bringing together leaders in education, youth development, research, business, health care, and the military to explore how to integrate SEL and academics. 

Boston Public Schools has not only embraced SEL as part of its mission, it has taken the next step of institutionalizing resources and support for SEL. In 2015, it created the Office of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness to coordinate seven departments with some responsibility for students’ psychological and physical well-being. While the office encompasses a range of functions (including physical education and mental health services), Assistant Superintendent Amalio Nieves views social-emotional instruction and assistance as a common denominator. “We don’t see it as a stand-alone,” he says. “The adults have been doing it all along, but they haven’t been explicitly calling it out. So, how do we become more intentional, more deliberate?”

One answer is to develop a clear understanding of what SEL is. This can be a challenge because the field has been flooded with SEL-related terms-from “grit” to “growth mindset”-but there is no consensus about which to use or what they mean. “It bedevils progress for the field,” says Harvard’s Jones. “When you say ‘self-control’ you mean one thing, and when I say it I probably mean a different thing.” 

In a Wallace-commissioned report to be published in 2017, Jones defines SEL as “the process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills required to succeed in schooling, the workplace, relationships, and citizenship.” She divides these skills into three domains: cognitive regulation (the basic mental skills needed to achieve a goal, including attention, memory, and the ability to adapt to new information); emotional processes (the skills that help children recognize, express, and control their feelings and understand the feelings of others); and social/interpersonal skills (the basis for understanding other people’s behavior, navigating social situations, and having positive interactions with peers and adults).

Other SEL Resources

There are other resources for understanding SEL theory and practice, including those developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR); and the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. Jones advises educators not to hold out for “one supersystem that organizes it all,” but rather think about what they are trying to achieve, and then choose an approach that fits those goals. To Nieves, the terminology challenge presents “an opportunity for us to create a common language across Boston, to engage the entire community so it can really design its own approach to SEL.”

Community engagement has been central to Boston’s SEL strategy. This can be a challenge, too, especially when it comes to parents and guardians. Nieves says that parents are excited about SEL, but Edge Research, in its focus groups, found that while parents are “with this issue in spirit,” it takes thoughtful communication for them to “warm up” to the concept. For one thing, families may be put off by the technical jargon that crops up in the SEL conversation, preferring plain language like “persistence” and “teamwork.” For another, they may consider an emphasis on inequities faced by children from high-poverty, at-risk backgrounds to be condescending. Some parents may also be concerned about how their children’s social-emotional skills will be evaluated.

By contrast, Edge found families tend to respond favorably to evidence that SEL is linked to academic achievement. Families also appreciate the message that SEL begins at home, with SEL programming at school serving as a form of family support. “It has to be an offering and an ask,” Jones says. “What do you need? What can we provide you with?” 

Reaching Out to OST Providers

Families aren’t the only constituency schools and districts are reaching out to as they develop their SEL strategies. After-school and other out-of-school time (OST) providers can be important partners for a number of reasons. In its developmental framework for SEL, CCSR maintains that youth development is shaped by a child’s interactions with adults in all settings, and OST programs catch children in the critical hours between school and home. “We need all the help we can get,” Holzer says. “The needs of our students don’t stop when they leave school.”

There is also the potential for OST providers to coordinate with schools, complementing their SEL work with a distinct set of programming, services, and expertise. The Wallace Foundation recently launched a multi-year initiative to test the proposition that such partnerships could enhance students’ social-emotional skills. In the initiative’s first phase, pairings of school districts and nonprofit OST intermediary organizations in nine cities received grants and technical assistance to support planning for joint SEL efforts—one of the participants is Boston. Nieves notes that the district’s nonprofit partner, Boston After School & Beyond, brings invaluable experience to the table. “They’ve identified best practices, engaged the OST community in terms of setting standards, even looked at how to message this work,” he says.

Jones observes that OST programs typically are not as tightly structured as schools, which could be an advantage when it comes to nurturing SEL. “There’s more opportunity to bring kids in as active learners and designers of what they’re doing,” she says. 

Holzer has found that introducing practices to foster “habits of mind, how to be in a school and a community” rather than following a set curriculum or program design is the right path for Boston Green Academy. “The goal is to have students drive the culture,” he says. “It’s not about coming together around an acronym. It’s about treating the students as human beings.” 

Daniel Browne is a writer living in Birmingham, AL.