Like most parents and caregivers, our experiences with our children’s education have been filled with emotions and lessons. Particularly in these last couple of years, we have had a close-up view of our children’s experience of school. We have seen educators making magic happen in real and virtual spaces, and we have also seen missed opportunities to authentically partner with families across our communities.
As parents, we know firsthand that our children’s academic learning can’t be separated from their social and emotional lives – and that their home lives and school lives are deeply connected. A big reason why we do the work we do at CASEL is because we believe that supporting the social, emotional, and academic learning of every child takes families, schools, and communities all working together.
We know that families and educators have a lot in common: Not only are we all invested in children’s learning and development, the vast majority of teachers and parents agree that social and emotional learning (SEL) is an essential part of quality education. But families and educators don’t often have meaningful opportunities to develop trusting relationships and real partnerships.
That’s why our CASEL team has spent much of this year focused on how to build deeper connections between educators and families. As part of this priority, we wanted to bring together caregivers and education leaders to listen and learn from one another.
Here are some of the valuable insights that we heard as we hosted caregiver roundtables in communities in Nevada, Texas, and Ohio:
1. Caregivers want their children’s schools to bring back joy.
Students are back in school, but parents say that effects from the pandemic have lingered. They are seeing children who are disconnected from school, dealing with mental health challenges, and lacking confidence to engage with peers and in new activities.
But as one parent stated, they wanted schools to remember, “Our kids are not broken–they come to school whole.”
They call on schools to:
- Provide the space and support to socialize at school, rebuild relationships, and make friends.
- Prioritize their children’s well-being, alongside their academic achievement.
- Increase focus on social and emotional learning in schools to help bring back relationships and joy.
They recognized that SEL can be critical in meeting these needs, helping students build and practice social skills with both peers and adults. They have seen that learning happens most powerfully in the context of positive relationships.
Caregivers tell us clearly that friendship and joy are not a distraction from, but rather at the heart of, students’ experience of school and their ability to engage with new content and ideas as pathways to academic success.
2. Parents see social and emotional learning as critical to a quality education, and they want to see it applied consistently across their children’s schools.
Surveys show that 81% of parents want their children’s schools to continue or do more with SEL. The parents and caregivers we spoke with echoed this sentiment. They shared positive experiences with social and emotional learning in schools and said that a focus on SEL resonated with their priorities at home.
But while many schools and districts have resources and initiatives promoting social and emotional learning, some parents shared that they saw uneven implementation across schools.
For example, one school district has provided SEL curricula for schools to use during Advisory periods to promote relationship-building and skills development. Parents strongly supported this initiative, but they were not previously aware that the 30-minute block was intended as a dedicated SEL time. They reported that the Advisories seemed like a wasted “free period” and advocated for more SEL-focused instruction during this block.
Parents also wanted to see the focus on social and emotional learning applied to other aspects of schooling, especially in discipline processes. They felt discipline should be focused on learning and community rather than punishment.
Some parents shared that discipline methods like suspension had caused harm to their children and that more supportive methods were needed to ensure their children built the skills and maintained the relationships necessary for learning and overall well-being.
While SEL shouldn’t be confused with behavior management, student discipline can both be grounded in and impact SEL and school climate practices. That’s why supportive discipline is one of the indicators of a systemic approach to SEL–seeing discipline as a means of learning and long-term relationship-building.
3. Caregivers shared tremendous empathy for the adults who are educating their children.
The families we spoke with deeply understood the challenges of the past couple of years and how much educators were asked to do to support their children.
While some parents were challenged by teachers who they perceived as overwhelmed or disengaged, they recognized that educators have also faced increased stressors and trauma. They understood that in order to create conditions for students to engage in SEL, adults need to feel empowered, supported, and valued.
Parents discussed the impact that a supportive adult can have on young people. They shared that when teachers were focused on relationship-building and making connections with students, their children were more engaged and motivated to attend school.
To that end, parents called for:
- More professional and mental health support for adults in the school building
- All adults in the school to model and prioritize SEL
- Greater focus on building teacher-student relationships to connect with children from different backgrounds
- Teacher access to tools and action plans to support SEL
- Increased attention to the social and emotional competence of administrators to facilitate more empathetic conversations around difficult issues students were facing
In short, parents want educators to prioritize SEL, but they know educators need the right support in a healthy school environment in order to do so successfully.
4. Caregivers often want to support and partner with educators–but they need more bi-directional communication with schools.
Overall, parents shared a strong desire to be more involved in their children’s schools and to bolster school-family-community partnerships. In particular, parents wanted to work more closely with educators to support their children’s learning and shared challenges when educators didn’t value their perspectives.
For some, the pandemic and school safety concerns limited opportunities to volunteer with or attend school events. As much as possible, parents wanted creative solutions like apps to share classroom updates, as well as a variety of ways to connect through Zoom meetings and “old school” engagements like field days and other community-building activities.
Common themes shared by parents included the need for:
- Greater communication from schools about their children’s learning experiences, including both important issues and day-to-day classroom activities
- More consistent structures for family engagement in schoolwide decision-making, including regular meetings or opportunities to have discussions with school leaders and other parents
- Collaboration from educators on resolving behavior issues and proactively supporting students’ social and emotional development
Families are also far more likely to partner with schools when the school’s norms, values, and cultural representations reflect their own experiences. It’s important for schools to foster a culturally responsive and welcoming school environment in order to authentically engage families as partners in promoting students’ SEL.
Partnering with Families
Again and again, we heard that parents want their children’s schools to be joyful places that prioritize both social-emotional and academic development–understanding that these are intimately related to one another. They also want more entryways to engage in their children’s education.
School-family partnerships are powerful for students, educators and families, and we heard a clear call to create the conditions at all layers of our school systems necessary for these partnerships to thrive. We are grateful to the families who joined these roundtables for their heartfelt insights and willingness to collaborate.
Thank you to The Bernard & Sandra Otterman Foundation for their generous support of this work.