Friends walking together on city street
Why the ‘Whole Child’ Matters

By Michael Nettles

Head back, eyes wide, Jasmine’s trance-like gaze follows a 1,776-foot path of steel and glass. These hypnotic moments occur whenever she’s in New York City.

Her family always makes the trek from their home in New Rochelle, N.Y., to the city during the Christmas season. Her younger brother and parents like looking forward toward the decorated store fronts and streets filled with the hum of holiday busyness.

Jasmine likes to look up at man-made ridge lines created by artistic expression, science, technology and human will.

As the spectacle of One World Trade Center stands against dusk’s orange and purple horizon, she thinks of the first line drawn on a sketch pad by an architect that eventually led to the creation of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Back home, the high school senior’s bedroom is littered with her own sketches of buildings and cityscapes along with college information literature and brochures. Despite a variety of school options, she has her heart set on Syracuse University because of its respected architecture program.

But, there’s a problem, and Jasmine knows it.

Her lackluster math grades and SAT score could be the determining factors in her not getting admitted.

Jasmine is an exceptional teenager in many other ways. Her high school lacrosse coaches named her team captain because of her ability to collaborate with and inspire her teammates. A middle school charity project had her packing groceries to be delivered to needy families. Today, Jasmine volunteers her Saturday mornings to drive these deliveries herself. Her charcoal drawings and landscape paintings have won numerous art contests. Her struggles with math haven’t deterred her from participating in the school’s Math League team.

Jasmine’s holiday break is marred by anxiety.

“Will they see that my other grades are well-above average? My portfolio of artwork has to be better than other applicants’, right? Was my essay good enough to show how much I want this?” she asks herself.

It’s the end of January, now. She’s awoken by her phone’s alarm to start her day. Like every day since the start of the new year, she jolts up in bed, snatches her phone and immediately scrolls through her emails.

And, there it is — From: Syracuse University

Cradling the phone in both hands, its screen casting her dark bedroom in a bluish hue, the light tap of her thumb to open the email seems in stark contrast to magnitude of this moment.

“We’re pleased to inform you…”

What helps make our children’s lives more fulfilling? To be better friends, better sons and daughters, better coworkers, better citizens, and of course better students? It’s developing their social and emotional skills. Social and emotional learning, or SEL, involves going beyond development of students’ cognitive skills and strengthen “the whole child.”

Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), describes SEL in an excellent Huffington Post blog:

Common sense tells us that social and emotional skills — such as perseverance, self-control or agreeableness — help individuals have more fulfilling lives. People who persevere and work hard are more likely to succeed in a highly dynamic and skill-driven labor market. Those who work hard are more likely to follow healthier lifestyles and remain fit. Individuals who are capable of coping with their emotions and adapting to change are more likely to cope with job loss, family disintegration or crime. And of course, social and emotional skills matter because they help develop and enforce cognitive skills.

That is as good an argument and simple a summary as I have seen as to why SEL matters. I’m not surprised given that the OECD is a leader in this research.

Another organization that does excellent work in this area is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). In 2011, CASEL conducted a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students. It showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement among students who participated in SEL programs compared to students who did not. Students also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.

Whether in the playroom, the classroom, the workplace, or the public square, we have to have the ability to get along with one another. Our infinitely diverse global society depends on it.

Are we patient? Are we respectful? Are we tolerant of our differences in appearance, values, belief, habits and behavior? Do we persevere through adversity, and even failure? Can we empathize with the suffering of others? Are we able to work collaboratively and creatively toward shared goals? Can we keep our tempers in check?

These are some of the questions SEL asks. When we can answer them in the affirmative, we will have made the world a less-troubled place.

A question that you may ask is why any of this is of interest to Educational Testing Service (ETS). We’re known for our educational assessments, like the TOEIC, TOEFL and GRE tests, or our work with national and international education assessments, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for the U.S. Department of Education and PISA and PIAAC assessments for the OECD.

We believe in the importance of SEL and the positive impact it has on a student’s academic life. This naturally led us to better understand and seek ways to measure these skills. In keeping with our namesake and mission, we wanted to provide ways to monitor SEL progress and more accurately identify appropriate interventions.

We’ve intensified our research because of the growing evidence of its importance in school, work, and life from multiple fields and sources; including neuroscience, health, psychology, classroom management, learning theory, economics, and the prevention of youth problem behaviors.

Some of this work led to the development of the ETS SuccessNavigator assessment. It is a 30-minute online test helps colleges identify the student’s commitment, resiliency and other skills associated with academic success. The assessment also provides intervention recommendations to student resource professionals at the institution.

Changing education paradigms many times becomes a heated affair. Research data alone won’t withstand the influences of opposing economic and political interests.

Columbia University’s benefit-cost analysis found that for every dollar a school spends on SEL programs, there’s an $11 worth of benefits returned.

Cost, then, should not be an impediment to broad use of SEL programming in schools.

There’s also the wild card in public education. Politics.

And yet …

The Brookings Institution on the left, and the American Enterprise Institute on the right — recently collaborated on a study on ways to improve the prospects of people born into poverty. Their recommendations include educating “the whole child to promote SEL and character development as well as academic skills.”

Even these partisan authors seemed surprised by their agreement. But as they write in their report, “The only way forward, we believe, is to work together.”

It must have taken enormous amounts of social and emotional skills for them to work together, let alone agree.
And so here we are.

Just because 15 scholars in Washington can agree on an issue does not mean that the issue is settled. It may just mean that the battle is joined. It’s certain that there will be resistance to the very idea that schools should teach emotional skills instead of just focusing on the basics; reading, writing and arithmetic. And as always, there is unlikely to be one approach that will work for all countries and cultures. There shouldn’t be. The approach needs to fit the place, not the other way around.

Though SEL and measurement are still in its nascent stage, we’re not starting from scratch. Teachers support it, employers want it, economists value it and researchers are excited by it.

Let’s galvanize our communities and seek opportunities to learn from one another and to inspire, encourage and motivate one another because the whole child matters.