Supporting the Whole Learner in Every School

Feb 5, 2019, 2:00 PM, Posted by

Social emotional development is key to every child’s education and paves a path to life-long health. A new report shares specific recommendations for research, practice and policy to promote all students’ social, emotional and academic development.

Students in a classroom.

Dr. James Comer is a pioneer. Decades before the science of learning and development caught up to him, he understood that all children need well-rounded developmental experiences in order to seize opportunities in life. His parents hailed from the deeply segregated South, but they helped him thrive in the era of Jim Crow, investing in his social and emotional well-being and providing safe, supportive, nurturing and demanding educational experiences.

Through that lived experience and Dr. Comer’s work as a physician and child psychiatrist, he understood that one of the most important ways to support children was to focus on where they spend a substantial part of their day: schools. He also understood that many children did not have opportunities to benefit from an environment that supported their well-being and their ability to have a full learning experience. He set out to change this through a remarkable model that has earned him the moniker “the godfather of social and emotional learning.”

The fundamental basis for Dr. Comer’s work is that in order for children to realize their full potential, their diverse backgrounds and circumstances must be recognized. When schools meet children this way, students feel valued, challenged, and free to express their agency.

The research supporting Dr. Comer’s work has endured and is being amplified each year. Learning is social and emotional, and we must focus on supporting the whole learner. The positive impacts of investing in a child’s social and emotional well-being begin early in life. One major 20-year study found that kindergartners with stronger social and emotional skills—who were more likely to share, cooperate, and help peers—attained higher education and well-paying jobs as adults. These kids became healthier, successful adults.

Photo of Jennifer Ng'andu and James Comer. Jennifer Ng’andu and Dr. James Comer.
Dr. Comer describes the need to support young people’s comprehensive development based on his more than 50 years immersed in this work.

This evidence was once again brought to bear through the National Commission on Social Emotional and Academic Development (the "Commission"), for which Dr. Comer serves as honorary co-chair. The Commission released recommendations about how to ensure that children land in schools that foster their full development. 

Getting to Brass Tacks

The final report is based on what the Commission learned from school leaders, educators, parents, and young people from all over the country. It makes recommendations across research, policy, and practice and focuses on the conditions that are critical to ensure every school in the country supports the whole child.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has been proud to support the work of the Commission since its earliest phases of planning. Its work embodies our belief that every child deserves the opportunity to thrive in safe, stable environments, starting from the earliest ages.

While the recommendations are primarily focused on schools, they also acknowledge the broader contexts in which children and youth develop. They include:

1.    Set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child. Success in life depends not just on traditional academics, but on social and emotional skills such as collaborating well with peers, setting and working toward goals, and being aware of how one’s emotions and actions impact others.

2.    Transform learning settings so they are safe and supportive for all young people. This is about BOTH physical and psychological safety. We need to acknowledge that students come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and be sure to create spaces and conditions in schools that are welcoming to all.

3.    Change instruction to teach social, emotional, and cognitive skills; embed these skills in academics and in schoolwide practices. School leadership can bring a strategic approach to teaching students social emotional skills at all levels. Like all skills, these take time to develop. To be effective, they must be integrated throughout the school day, and not set up as an isolated class or activity.

4.    Build adult expertise in child development. Supporting the whole learner means supporting the caregivers and educators around them as well. All school staff—teachers, administrators, counselors, paraprofessionals, and others—must have access to professional development that integrates components of social emotional learning for youth of all ages.

5.    Align resources and leverage partners in the community to address the whole child. While schools are often the focus, we know they are not the only place where this work happens. School districts and leaders need to work together to build partnerships among other groups youth interact with, whether afterschool programs, recreation centers, etc.

6.    Forge closer connections between research and practice. The practices schools and community partners use must be based on the best available evidence. In order to make that happen, we all must work to more closely connect the researchers in this field with those putting that evidence to work.

Moving Forward

The good news is that Dr. Comer is now a leader among many. In December, the Prevention Research Center at Penn State University published a research brief that nicely encapsulates what decades of research show us about the impact social emotional development can have on kids, and principles of how to do it well. Penn State has published a series of briefs over the last two years, examining social emotional learning in early childhood and at every school level. The briefs have also explored how factors like school climate impact social emotional learning, and how to approach these strategies equitably, so that all children benefit. The work Penn State is doing to synthesize research on social emotional learning will continue this year as well.

RWJF also is excited work with MDRC on further evidence related to how approaches grounded in equity and social emotional learning can support the whole learner. CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, will continue to work with states and districts across the country, sharing practices for what works. Child Trends has just released an analysis that shows that most states have policies that support parts of social emotional learning, but that those policies can be limited. That assessment is also part of a broader, comprehensive analysis of state laws and policies that elevate how states are advancing well-being of children across the nation.  

A child’s well-being and their education are inextricably linked. Children who succeed in education have the promise of better health later in life. And children who are healthier are more likely to go to and do well in school.

Dr. Comer’s prescient vision for children was brought to bear in the Commission’s report, and hundreds of stakeholders are rallying around it. We’re one of them, because we believe that every child deserves an opportunity to be their healthiest and live the fullest life possible.   

Read the Commission’s recommendations and share your comments on how else schools can support the whole child.


About the Author

Jennifer Ng' andu

Jennifer Ng’andu is the interim managing director–program at RWJF. She helps lead grantmaking activities to advance social and environmental changes that help ensure that all children and their families have the full range of opportunities to lead healthy lives, while providing a strong and stable start for every child in the nation. Read her full bio