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Caring relationships and student well-being are key to academic success

Supporting social-emotional development

Throughout our country, parents, educators, employers and researchers are changing how we talk about improving educational outcomes, and in particular how we ensure that all children receive the supports they need to thrive in college, career and life. There is a growing recognition that supporting students’ social-emotional well-being is essential to their academic and professional success.

Sometimes referred to as non-cognitive skills, social and emotional aptitudes such as self-management, goal-setting and problem solving have, in the past, been dismissed as “nice-to-haves” instead of must-haves. Now there is an understanding, grounded in science, that learning is a holistic process of weaving social, emotional and academic skills together and that in order for students to achieve and grow, develop their talents and potential, and graduate from high school equipped to flourish in school and in life, we need to be strengthening all of them together.

  • “Social and emotional learning is more than just a passing fad in education”, the latest Grad Nation report says. “It is the very core of a high-quality education and a critical component to student achievement and life outcomes beyond high school.”
  • Eight in 10 employers say that social and emotional skills are most important to success in the workplace, found researchers, and yet are also the most difficult skills to find.
  • A study found that supporting student social and emotional development produces an 11-percentage-point gain in grades and test scores.

We have a deeper understanding of how children learn and develop. Advances in brain and learning science have shown that children are better able to thrive in school when they feel secure and supported. These breakthroughs have also demonstrated that learning happens through relationships. When students are supported by a web of caring adults, they are better able to process and heal from adverse childhood events that can interfere with their learning, and are more likely to come to school every day, stay in school and graduate positive outcomes that benefit all of us.

At the same time, businesses are clamoring for employees who are able to collaborate in teams, creatively problem solve and communicate, and effectively manage themselves and others. Increasingly, employers are saying that these interpersonal skills are more important to them than technical or “hard” skills.

A growing body of research shows that when students develop self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making and collaboration, they have a better chance of graduating from high school, getting a college degree, earning higher-wages and contributing to their communities. The benefits of educational supports targeting these skills far surpass the costs. In fact, weaving social and emotional skills with academic learning returns $11 for every $1 invested.

The power of youth service

More and more, youth-serving organizations across the country, including City Year, are also highlighting the importance of these so-called “non-academic” factors in helping students to thrive and entire schools to improve their culture and climate. The creation of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development at the Aspen Institute in 2016 has accelerated our understanding about what all children need to succeed, and how schools, policymakers, nonprofits and families can support students.

At City Year, we and our school district, philanthropic and research partners couldn’t agree more: Students’ academic growth is directly tied to their social and emotional well-being.City Year and many of our partners have focused on raising graduation rates and improving student outcomes by establishing positive, caring “developmental” relationships with students, which help students be and become their best selves, according to the Search Institute.

An AmeriCorps member leans on a desk, looking at a worksheet with a student

Robert Alvarado, who served as an AmeriCorps member with City Year Los Angeles in 2016-2017, described the transformation of one of his students, Manuel, once Robert figured out that the best way to connect with Manuel was through physical activity. By leading Manuel in a game before starting their academic lessons, Robert started to slowly build a relationship with him.

“We wouldn’t play every single day, but when we did, we were able to be vulnerable with each other. This led to mutual understanding and trust. What I remember most is just laughing and bonding over our shared and different life experiences.”

Their bond led to Manuel’s deeper engagement with his learning and improvements in his reading and writing. Robert believes that being consistent and genuine with Manuel and simply spending time with him helped to break down barriers between them and position Manuel for future success in school.

“To some, this progress may seem small,” said Robert, “but I know that meeting students at their level is key to helping them dream big. For a student to be able to learn and be excited about school, they need to feel comfortable and connected to someone who cares and know that they will have consistent support.”

Despite progress over the past decade, the U.S. high school graduation rate is still not where it should be. Nearly 16 percent of students didn’t graduate in 2016, and the percentage is far higher in high-need communities serving many low-income students and students of color. In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, the high school graduation rate is 22 percentage points below that of middle- and upper-class students, which represents a tragic loss of human potential.

In 349 public schools across City Year’s network of 29 U.S. cities, City Year AmeriCorps members like Robert Alvarado build positive relationships with students like Manuel. These genuine connections enable corps members to deliver evidence-based supports that are designed to help students thrive and build upon their strengths. AmeriCorps members receive coaching and training throughout the academic year, including in an asset-based framework, the Clover model, developed by the PEAR Institute. Clover helps AmeriCorps members to nurture students’ social-emotional skills, accelerating their academic and personal growth.

Our near-peer AmeriCorps members mature enough to offer guidance yet young enough to relate to students’ perspectives are also uniquely positioned to offer students feedback that nurtures a growth mindset. As tutors, mentors and role models, City Year AmeriCorps members encourage students to take on challenging work and risk failure rather than staying in a “safe zone” of areas they know well. AmeriCorps members are trained to praise effort and improvement and avoided calling students “smart” — a remark that encourages a “fixed” mindset by implying abilities are set in stone.

These strategies promote confidence, optimism and enthusiasm for learning that translate into better school attendance, behavior and academic performance, concrete outcomes that are all linked to students’ enhanced emotional well-being. City Year is proud to collaborate with America’s Promise Alliance, MENTOR, PEAR, PERTS (Project for Education Research That Scales at Stanford University), Playworks, Search Institute, Transforming Education and many other youth-focused organizations that are dedicated to ensuring that all children receive the holistic supports they need to flourish, both in and out of school.

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