Where a parent or caregiver decides to send their child to school is a life-defining choice. School, in effect, serves as the key partner to the family in the healthy development of the child. Like many parents, my wife and I hope for our son to grow up a confident, caring, and joyful person who is led by a deeper sense of purpose and contribution. When he reached school age, we sought to find a school that would cultivate this in him. It took us two tries over a year, but we found the answer in a school focused on social and emotional learning.
At the first school we chose, things went very well up through about the beginning of third grade (ages 8-9). The change in our experience was subtle at first, with our son’s teachers having a stronger focus on traditional discipline. It felt as though the mindset had shifted from cultivating care to managing behavior. Now there were “good” and “bad” kids in the group, and we noticed an uptick in conflict, tension, and emotional distancing in his peer group.
As our son progressed into the preteen years of fourth through sixth grade, we saw the common formation of in- and out-groups. We experienced the school largely ignoring this social dynamic, which created fertile ground for bullying. Our son became an unfortunate target, mostly because he had interests and personality traits that did not seem to fit an implicit “ideal profile” of a student. We noticed a steady change in our son over this same time, as he went from an outgoing, joyful, expressive child to a quiet, withdrawn, and anxious preteen. He struggled more with his confidence in his relationships, in his ability to perform academically, and in his ability to tackle challenges.
We took it upon ourselves to make a change. We engaged in a wide, year-long search for a school that we felt truly embodied the values of care, inclusion, and contribution. We landed on a private school in our city that seemed to really “walk the walk” of whole-child development. The impact was almost immediate. All three of us felt warmly embraced into the community even before school had started. We were assigned a “buddy family” who proactively reached out to welcome us in and to serve as support for our transition.
As school began, our son engaged in the many different structures and programs that the school had in place aimed squarely at cultivating the social and emotional development of students. Most notably, every student is assigned to an advisory group—a small group of peers who are facilitated by a trained faculty member. It’s where everyone starts and ends every day, with time and space given to each student to get their voice heard (or not, if they so choose). It’s also where the faculty advisor can explore current and relevant social and emotional topics and events through activities designed to provoke self-reflection, social awareness, empathy-building, and building healthy relationships.
In addition to advisory groups, the school engages in strong school-family partnerships, which we experienced throughout the year via continuous invitations to collaborate with administrators and teachers. Also, the academic curriculum has a notable focus on “human capabilities” such as creativity, innovation, emotional intelligence, and unique purpose. A standout piece of this is one entire day every week dedicated to enabling students to experiment with special classes designed to dive deeper into a wide variety of emergent content areas, ranging from coding to jazz band. Finally, the arts and humanities play a pivotal part in how every student experiences their education. A requirement for every middle and upper schooler, the arts and humanities serve as a core element of a learning environment committed to deeply exploring the wider range of the inner human experience.
Within less than a year, our son transformed into a strong, confident, self-asserting young man. He has seemingly found himself and his value in the world at a critical moment, and he feels deeply supported by his teachers, peers, and administrators. We can say, from our own observation and experience, that it has everything to do with the intentional focus on social and emotional learning programs in his school.
Jason Miller is an Ohio parent who was also featured Real Stories, Real Families, an audio collection featuring accounts from caregivers nationwide on why they believe in an education that prioritizes SEL.
The views in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL. Thank you to The Allstate Foundation for their generous support of this work.