Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: SEADing the Path Forward

By Abner Oakes

ISA's Director of Outreach


a bulletin board in a SEAD classroomSoon, many young people will graduate high school and head off on a new adventure. Whether their journey leads to enrolling in college, going to work, joining the military, or diving into another postsecondary pathway, the transition into the real world can be a bumpy ride. Ideally, their high school education will serve as a launchpad for this next stage in their lives, giving them the skills and knowledge to navigate the bumps so that they are successful and can ultimately be a contributing member of this vibrant democracy.

Many young people attending schools supported by the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) entered high school behind in areas such as literacy and mathematics but were able to make up those gaps due to their own hard work and the intense and dedicated work of their teachers, leaders, and counselors. Certainly, the content mastered in classrooms will be of value, particularly for those that go off to college. And the academic skills that they learned in those classrooms, such as learning to analyze a passage from a text or to write critically, will aid a variety of postsecondary pathways. As this 2016 practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse stated, “Indeed, writing is a life-long skill that plays a key role in postsecondary success across academic and vocational disciplines.”

But reading, writing, and arithmetic are just one part of preparation for life after high school. There is a great deal more that young people need from their high school years to prepare them, such as the social and emotional competencies that serve as the backbone for any maturing young person. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is equal in importance, if not more so, to the book learning that high school has always been about. It requires us to think about how we implement this work not only in after-school programs or through advisory, but intentionally and within academic core settings. Are students asked in their classrooms to collaborate with peers, for example? How are classroom activities set up so that communication is practiced? Young people not only need to learn algebra and read Toni Morrison but also need to collaborate with their peers, orally present findings from an experiment to the rest of the class, and build self-confidence when taking a final exam.

For the past two years, ISA has worked with several of our schools on this important integration of social and emotional learning with academics — SEAD or social, emotional, and academic development. In this work, we have found that teachers are initially nervous about taking time out from “coverage” of content, particularly if that content is tested on state assessments. However, once they find that SEAD strategies and practices help students access challenging content and have students take charge of their own learning, teachers take the time to coach students on using those strategies regularly and share these successes with their colleagues. In one ISA school, for example, a school that prides itself on requiring students to complete demanding, long-term “capstone” projects, it has successfully addressed student procrastination, last-minute drama, and low completion rates by teaching students goal-setting strategies. Students break down the long-term project into manageable chunks and monitor their success in meeting daily and weekly goals.

Teachers in this ISA school and others, with support from school leaders and ISA, have equipped their students with learning strategies, goal-setting techniques, and methods for monitoring their own learning. When teachers use these strategies regularly, their students persevere with rigorous work, learn from their mistakes, identify their own learning needs and ask for help, and track their own progress. These behaviors have also nurtured the students’ sense that they belong in an academic setting and that, through diligent effort, they can succeed at school, become better students, and be prepared to navigate the bumps on the road after high school.