Social Emotional Learning

Academics are critical, but so is your child’s social and emotional development

By Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware

Back in the 1980s, when I was a teacher in one of New York City’s largest high schools, George Washington High School, I got a sense of what my students needed to grow up to be healthy adults, and it extended beyond traditional academics. They were freshman in high school, 14-year-old kids, who in many cases grew up alongside poverty, hunger, violence, and addiction. I wrote about my experiences in more depth here, but I realized early on, that for me to connect with them on their academics, they needed to be seen, to be understood as individuals, and to be challenged.

My job as their instructor was to help forge the connection between school and real life—and support them to discover that, if you push yourself and persevere through challenging experiences, you can tap into an inner-reserve of resilience and toughness that you can always rely on. I was in a unique position to marry their traditional in-school experiences with adventures outside our classroom walls.

During one curriculum unit that I called “The Wall,” we read Langston Hughes’ famous poem “As I Grew Older”—which speaks of the metaphorical walls of racism. I had my students discuss the walls and challenges they dealt with in their own lives. Then I took them to an actual 35-foot rock wall near the Hudson River, where they learned how to tackle a seemingly impossible task by breaking into a series of smaller steps, by communicating with and relying on each other, and by persisting through tough situations. Once we got back into the classroom, we revisited those personal walls, and now they had a new set of tools to address them.

Strong academics will always be central in our schools. But in a rapidly changing world, it’s becoming increasingly important that our young people receive a holistic educational experience that maximizes who they are as individuals—one that instills skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, empathy, and creativity. We also know that physical and mental health, nutrition, and exposure to the arts are also huge factors in the development of our young people. This is true of all children, and particularly those who come from challenging backgrounds.

This concept of developing the “whole child”—a phrase that’s often cross-referenced with “social-emotional learning”—is not a new one. Generations of educators have told us that the so-called soft skills mentioned above are all important ingredients in child development. Employers are also telling us the same thing. In Delaware, we’re excited to see a renewed focus and collaboration on social-emotional learning.

We at the Rodel Foundation are firm believers in excellence and equity for each of Delaware’s students—and we believe that nurturing students holistically is the basis for not only helping them become successful in school, but become good citizens and happy and healthy adults. However, these skills are not easy to measure or teach, so that is a challenge we hope to pursue in the coming months and years. I invite you to help us push our thinking and to learn along with us.

We are working with a group of Rodel Teacher Council members to study social-emotional learning in Delaware. This dedicated group of educators believe schools should focus more on social and emotional development of students—and they are working to elevate their sense of what’s needed. But it’s clear that educators cannot do it alone.

Parents, ask your child’s teachers how they support whole child development in your school, and find out how you can get involved. Check out the social and emotional development tips at www.parenttoolkit.com for every grade level.

If we want our children to thrive, we need to take a holistic approach to supporting them. This will take all of us — educators, families, and the community – rolling up our sleeves and building a bolder and broader definition of student success. I look forward to working alongside you.

Read more about social and emotional learning in Delaware at www.rodelfoundationde.org.