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- The Forecaster
Colleges look for good grades and test scores to assess whether students can handle the academic rigors of postsecondary education. Colleges also look beyond academics for well-rounded students who have other indicators of success. Have they shown initiative, for instance, or a sense of social responsibility?
At the Portland Public Schools, we know students need more than academics to prepare them for college and career. We believe that academics, work habits, and social-emotional skills are equally important in school and in life. In fact, that belief is the third of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning.
This is the third in our series of columns about our Learning Beliefs that I’m writing with Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. This month, we’ll discuss how social-emotional learning and positive habits of work and learning are essential components of a well-rounded education, along with academics.
Social-emotional learning is the process by which we learn and apply skills needed for learning and life, such as identifying and managing emotions, building and maintaining relationships and solving problems. Research shows that SEL programs improve mental health, social skills, and academic achievement in ways that are long-lasting.
Habits of work and learning are performance character traits students must develop to succeed in school, college and career. In our work with Portland-area employers, they tell us they want employees who can problem-solve and communicate and work productively with others. We teach our students such “soft skills” necessary to be successful.
SEL also is vitally important for success. Research shows that multiple adverse childhood experiences in students’ lives can impact the brain and learning. Students across all income and racial backgrounds can be impacted. That is why the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, believes that SEL skills are important for all our students.
We are striving to build a full continuum of behavioral health supports that range from proactive development of SEL skills, such as responsible decision-making, to more responsive mental health supports for students with more significant needs.
Our schools are setting up structures and routines to facilitate this work, and we’re providing our teachers with SEL professional development to help them weave SEL into their instruction.
Here are some examples of what we are doing to support SEL and HOWLs development:
• Proactive teaching: Most of our elementary schools use a curriculum called Second Step, that teaches students explicit skills around building positive relationships, making good decisions and working well with others. For example, students can learn skills involved in starting a conversation (give a compliment, ask a question, look the other person in the eye) or in coping with situations where they have mixed feelings, such as being excited and nervous about playing in a sporting event.
• Giving students explicit feedback: At the middle-school level, teachers set learning targets that involve both academics and HOWLs. For instance, an academic lesson can include a HOWLs target of collaborative planning that is explicitly reinforced throughout the lesson.
• Providing trauma-sensitive supports and structures for students who have greater needs: For example, in some schools we use mindfulness practices or “calm spaces” to help students manage their emotions. Also, in a handful of elementary schools, we run multicultural groups, in partnership with Spurwink, that are designed to be both trauma-sensitive and culturally responsive.
Also, through our free Parent University, we address SEL issues important to families. For instance, a Parent U session titled “Raising Powerful and Healthy Girls” is on Wednesday, Dec. 5, from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School. This workshop focuses on how parents can partner with their daughters to challenge damaging messages and help them reach their full potential.
Our Portland Promise is built around the idea that our students graduate “Prepared and Empowered” for whatever is ahead. This requires that we not only give students the academic skills that they need, but also the competencies, habits of mind and dispositions to succeed. SEL and HOWLs are central components of preparation and empowerment in today’s world.
Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.