A Non-Partisan Plan

Imagine being tasked with creating a broad plan to reduce poverty and eliminate the opportunity gap for all Americans. Where would you begin? How would you influence change on this scale? What policies and practices would you put in place? What systems-level changes would need to occur?

This was exactly the task that was put before the American Enterprise Institute / Brookings Institute working group on poverty in 2015. Recognizing the need for more collaboration in a climate of political gridlock, this working group pulled together top experts on poverty from the left, right, and center of the political spectrum. After 14 months of working together, this group created a consensus report with their top recommendations for reducing poverty and restoring the American dream. The full report can be found here.

Their recommendations covered the three areas of work, family, and education. Relevant to this discussion are the four recommendations they made for education, which include:

1) Increase public investment in two underfunded stages of education: preschool and postsecondary.

2) Educate the whole child to promote social-emotional and character development as well as academic skills.

3) Modernize the organization and accountability of education.

4) Close resource gaps to reduce education gaps. 

The Paradox of Achievement Based Policy:

A central dilemma in effectively implementing these recommendations on a broad-scale is that the momentum of education policy and practice, in many cases, directly opposes integration of SEL and whole-child education. As the 2015 report states:

“Despite their importance to education, employment, and family life, the major educational and school reforms of the K–12 system over the last few decades have not focused sufficiently on the socio-emotional factors that are crucial to learning. Though most teachers believe that schools have a fundamental responsibility to educate the whole child, education policy has focused disproportionately on high-stakes accountability strategies based on results from standardized academic achievement tests. We believe that the education gap can’t be closed unless and until schools commit to and become skilled at educating the whole child.”

– AE/Brookings Institute Working Group

The Bigger Picture

To take a step back, why is social-emotional learning and whole-child education so central to closing the education gap? What are the actual downstream benefits?

In the short term, a broad evidence base demonstrates that effective implementation of SEL results in increased academic performance, improved attitudes about self and school, and more pro-social behaviors. In addition, these gains are accompanied by decreases in conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use.

These short-term benefits are significant, but perhaps even more striking is the long-term economic and societal benefits gained from early exposure to SEL. On average, for every dollar spent on SEL there is an $11 return on investment conveyed to society. These returns can be measured through increased high school and college graduation rates, increased employment rates in young adulthood, and decreases in school dropouts, std diagnosis, arrests, and mental health disorders.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime 

If an $11 to $1 return on investment seems suspect to you, then consider the role that early childhood trauma plays in health outcomes across a lifetime. Those who experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences are at significantly greater risk for 7 out of 10 of the leading causes of death (heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, suicide, chronic lung disease, diabetes). The increased risk is not trivial either – the numbers are often doubled, tripled, or even higher (for instance, a 1,220% increase in attempted suicide).

Given that two-thirds of the U.S. population experiences adversity in childhood, it may seem impossible to even begin to mitigate this risk. The answer, however, is actually quite simple: focus on providing safe, stable, and nurturing relationships. In the same landmark study that revealed the unprecedented link between childhood adversity and long-term health outcomes, it was demonstrated that having just one safe, stable adult relationship can significantly reduce the risk for long-term negative health outcomes. 

As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris stated in her recent talk on the impact of childhood trauma at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference:

“Safe, stable and nurturing relationships are not just nice to have, they are healing. They literally change our biology.”


The Bigger Bigger Picture

Even further still, we can ask ourselves what the as-of-yet intangible results of an increased focus on SEL will be. We may not yet know how to solve some of the most pressing global issues of our time – environmental sustainability, war, famine, disease, racism, sexual violence, gun violence, poverty – but can we imagine a future where an entire generation has been taught basic human skills like compassion, kindness, empathy, critical thinking, and conflict resolution?

The ripple effects of increased compassion, kindness, and connection may be unknowable, but we can be certain that attention to academic achievement alone will not create the future we desire for our children.

All of this to say, when it comes to teaching SEL there is a clearly demonstrated ‘why’ to the work. This why is absolutely critical to have in the forefront of our minds – from policy makers and parents to educators and administrators. We may not be able to see, touch, feel, or even measure the immediate impact of teaching a lesson on mindfulness, active listening, or self-compassion. And, in truth, the work is difficult, messy, ambiguous, and outside the comfort zone of many adults still grappling with their own emotional intelligence. As long as we remain clear on our why, however, we will find our how. 

‘The evidence should move us beyond debate as to whether schools should address students’ social and emotional learning to how schools can effectively integrate social, emotional, and academic development into their daily work.’

– Stephane Jones, Harvard Graduate School of Education

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