Following a school shooting in 2007, the then-leaders of Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) stood in front of the community and made a visionary pledge. In addition to quickly fixing the “hardware” issues that allowed the shooting to happen by installing metal detectors at the entrances to all CMSD schools, for instance, their response would go deeper. They promised to address the “humanware” issues that led to the shooting by emphasizing not just academics, but social and emotional intelligence in the education of Cleveland’s young people. Today, the department that continues to expand and improve upon the measures that were put in place following that shooting is still called Humanware, and Cleveland remains at the forefront of communities that are prioritizing social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD).
It was this backdrop, with CMSD’s commitment and Humanware’s leading insight, that drew the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development to Cleveland for a two-day meeting packed with panel discussions, briefs, keynote speeches, and field visits to both primary and secondary school buildings earlier this month. And it was my work as a member of Aspen’s Parent Advisory Panel for the Commission that had me by their side throughout.
With or without a catalyst like the shooting that spurred CMSD along nearly a decade ago, schools across the nation are finally viewing social and emotional learning as a cornerstone of education. As the Commission develops a Report From the Nation with recommendations for supporting this approach, the Parent Advisory Panel is tasked with learning about SEAD and providing valuable feedback from the parent perspective. I went to Cleveland as a parent who had never been briefed on a school’s social and emotional approach before, and came away with a new respect for the rigors of successfully implementing SEAD and new ideas for identifying the schools that are doing it well. These three questions get to the heart of what I saw in Cleveland, and would be the first I’d ask any school if I wanted to know more about its SEAD prowess.
1. What trend is the school seeing for rates of suspension and expulsion?
Schools that emphasize SEAD, even if they don’t have specific programs in place, often report significant reductions in the number of students who are subject to disciplinary actions such as suspension and expulsion. While actual rates of disciplinary action can vary widely from school to school within the same district, the overall trajectory—especially in the early years of SEAD implementation—will probably show a downward trend. As school leaders work to offer conflict resolution options that build problem solving and prevention skills, behavior issues are frequently de-escalated before they can come to a head. In Cleveland’s schools, this skill-building and de-escalation takes place in what the district calls “planning centers.”
Usually located in a classroom, the planning center acts as a safe haven where kids can reflect on their emotions and conduct. With the help of a trained educator, they spend time in the center making a plan for dealing with tough situations and learning coping mechanisms for when they feel overwhelmed. In fact, they don’t even have to wait until a problem arises to take advantage of the reflection, coaching, and mediation available in the planning center. In addition to parent and teacher referrals to deal with known issues, students can self-refer if they feel their emotions bubbling up. The result? Better-adjusted students who get into trouble less often.
2. Is social and emotional competency part of the professional development for teachers, administrators, and support staff?
During a presentation by Humanware managers Joseph Gerics and William Stencil, Gerics divulged the main thing Cleveland would change if it could start its SEL journey over again. That thing: start with the adults. And the Humanware team was far from the only people in CMSD to express that sentiment. Again and again, we heard from leaders all across the district who echoed the idea that adults need social and emotional learning too — sometimes even more than kids.
If you’re looking for an education that includes SEAD for your children, that means you need to find a school that not only offers it for students, but one that’s also making a concerted effort to boost the social and emotional skill set of its staff. It’s more than setting a good example. Educators who lack social and emotional intelligence can contribute to an environment that makes it impossible for students to manage their own emotions and grow in their social intelligence.
Training for educators can take many forms, but the key is that the training is taking place— ideally as part of the district’s professional development, so you know all of the school’s adults are being encouraged toward continual improvement.
3. May I talk to the students?
If your child already attends the school you’re curious about, this is easy—just talk to your child and their friends about their experiences. If you’re checking out a new school, however, it can pay off to ask for a tour where you’re allowed to interact with students and ask them questions.
CMSD assesses its own progress according to many benchmarks, one of which is a student survey that looks at how kids feel about their time in the classroom. Are they challenged? Supported? Safe? Do they feel like they’re growing and learning?
If the school administrators have told you about specific programs, do the students know about them too? What happens if they misbehave in class? While you may be satisfied with the answers you get from teachers and administrators in the school, getting a second set of answers to many of the same questions from the students can help determine if there are gaps between the theory of the leaders and the reality of the day-to-day implementation of their plan. If there are holes, it doesn’t mean the school isn’t doing a good job or that you shouldn’t send your child there, but it will give you an honest perspective about what work there is still to do in that building and how you might be able to support your child through it.
Diana Prichard is a freelance journalist, photographer, and award-winning author who has reported on agriculture, food security, foreign policy, development, and other issues. She lives and works on a small hog farm she founded as a first generation, female farmer. Diana is a member of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development’s Parent Advisory Panel.