Strengthening SEL Supports for Post-Secondary Success  

Middle school matters! It is a pivotal, at times vulnerable, moment in the college access pipeline – and a time ripe for student support and rich experiences.

Several studies demonstrate that building social and emotional learning (SEL) skills like goal-setting, sense of belonging, and self-confidence, as well as educators’ ability to support these skills, are the keys to success in college.

On October 12, Higher Achievement’s board of directors hosted an intimate convening of education experts, researchers, and leading practitioners to explore the links between academics, mentoring and social and emotional learning during the middle school years to boost college success and persistence, at exactly the right time.

Featured expert panelists included Nicole O. Beechum of The University of Chicago, Jennifer Brown Lerner of The Aspen Institute, Shane Mulhern of Monument Academy Public Charter School, Jessica Newman of American Institutes for Research, and Briana Wallington of Prince George’s County Public Schools and Higher Achievement alumna.  We were fortunate to host this event at Halcyon.

Key insights from the conversation included:

  • Social emotional learning (SEL) is recognizing the humanity of students, that they are not empty vessels into which we pour knowledge.
  • The process of learning IS social and emotional. Students learn more when they are emotionally engaged with the teacher and socially comfortable in the context.
  • SEL is not a new program to implement, but instead informs the way that educators show up (greater personal self-awareness) and engage with students (intentional relationship building with students and families).
  • Sadly, teachers are provided very little training on how to pursue SEL in classrooms. Without proper training, marginalized students are too often disproportionately disciplined, which can propel the school to prison pipeline.
  • Without an equity lens on this work, teachers will see SEL skills as innate traits in some kids and not others. In fact, SEL skills (like self-confidence, self-management, and persistence) are skills and competencies that can be taught and learned.
  • When supporting children with a number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like abuse or neglect, the single greatest protective factor is positive, safe adult relationships. The case for mentoring is strong.
  • This research was recently profiled on 60 Minutes. To learn about what ACEs are, you can take this quiz. Too many young people in our country and in Higher Achievement Centers have experienced several of these ACEs.

While the terminology of social-emotional learning (SEL) skills may sound new, the practice is not new to Higher Achievement.  We have been developing deep, multi-year relationships with scholars and families to build self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and problem-solving that is essential for learning.   One example of a scholar’s problem-solving skill comes from Baltimore: Higher Achievement’s Baltimore Executive Director, Traci Callender, shared an inspiring story of SEL in action at our Cherry Hill Achievement Center, describing how a scholar developed a plan with her mom to get her younger brother to school on time, so that she could get to school on time, and ultimately reduce tardiness and boost her first period grades.

Our work ahead in this space is extensive, including:

  • To refine our practices, Higher Achievement has partnered with American Institutes of Research to develop a series of bite-sized, practical online trainings in SEL for our staff and volunteers, available to other organizations beginning in the fall of 2019.
  • To share our knowledge base on middle school, we are developing a webinar series on how to engage with middle school students in developmentally appropriate ways, which engage their voice and give them choice.
  • To dive into family engagement, we are serving as a case study for the Aspen Institute on how to work closely with families on social emotional learning, in partnership with Learning Heroes. This work will be highlighted at the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development event in January 2019.

If you would like to learn more or get involved, please email us at  Learning IS social and emotional.