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Commentary: 'Social Emotional Learning' must be part of SC education reform

Fort Dorchester Elementary (copy)

Fort Dorchester Elementary 2nd grade teacher Elizabeth Manning works with her students on their writing skills Friday, February 22, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

The 2019-20 academic year begins with more questions than answers regarding education reform. While much has been written and discussed over the past year regarding the failed state of education in South Carolina, the measurable action that is wanted, needed and deserved continues to elude our state.

While we wait with optimistic expectancy for reform to take root, at Communities In Schools we are continuing to work within the front lines of education, helping to change the opportunity equation for students across our state. CIS is the largest provider of integrated student supports in the nation, and one of those supports, among the many we provide daily, is social-emotional learning. We believe SEL is a vital and necessary component of education, not just another thing to add to the plate of teachers and administrators but the very plate upon which all other content should be placed.

SEL instills the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making within the daily life of the student. Developing these competencies equips students with the confidence to face life’s challenges and empowers them to persevere through barriers placed in their way, such as poverty and hunger, that too many of our students struggle with each day.

These barriers make academic success seem almost insurmountable to many students. However, when SEL supports are integrated into daily routines, students begin to know their strengths, manage stress, empathize with others, communicate clearly and make constructive choices, which makes academic success attainable. The application of these skills allows students to excel in school and achieve in life. Skills and competencies gleaned through SEL stick with students far beyond the classroom, developing the soft skills employers desire in their employees, social skills needed in the pursuit of college dreams and the social intelligence needed to navigate a life beyond high school.

For education to be truly equitable, SEL must be an integral part of the education reform equation. It is vital for student and classroom success. The needs of students are extremely complex, going well beyond reading or math intervention. Addressing the mental and emotional health of our students through the infusion of SEL is an absolute necessity. If we do not recognize the importance of nonacademic supports within the lives of students, we will never move the needle on academic success.

To that end, within CIS we are expanding our repertoire of integrated student supports by developing replicable models of whole school SEL supports. This effort is made possible through funding from the Al and Linda Estee Foundation combined with funds provided through the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation. It is our hope to continue to partner with schools and school districts throughout South Carolina, especially those in rural areas, aligning our service model with their need, and equipping students and teachers with supports that will drive success. We are also hopeful continued conversation and increased advocacy for SEL will take place through the recently formed Social Emotional Learning Alliance for South Carolina founded by Al Estee.

As the conversation of education reform creeps forward, we must, as a state, continue to learn from our past. But that does not excuse the inaction of the present. Courageous and bold action is needed today if we have any hope of South Carolina’s educational future being different, better and so much more than minimally adequate.

Jamie Cooper is CEO for Communities In Schools of the Charleston Area.

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