Socially and Emotionally Safe – and Hopeful!

By Tim Shriver, Co-Chair of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development and Chair of the CASEL Board

More than thirty years ago when I was a teacher at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut, a student standing just a few feet from me during dismissal was shot. I went home that day with his blood on my clothes and the shocking immediacy and stark reality of a challenge on my mind.

My colleagues and I, guided by the child development based systems reform work of Dr. James Comer and the social competence promotion work of Dr. Roger Weissberg and supported by our principal and superintendent, began shaping a strategy to put the needs of children—all their needs—at the center of school.  We began to focus on parents, on mental health services, on after school supports.  And we began to create a curriculum that would help kids calm themselves down, seek help when they needed it, set responsible goals, and form positive relationships.

We were trying to make our schools places where kids would feel socially and emotionally safe―for the sake of their safety, of course, but also and primarily for the sake of students’ happiness and success.

It was a good start.

Thirty years later, we are now ready for national action.  The report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope―released this month by the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development―calls for a new focus on the way schools address loneliness, social isolation, bullying, and the many forms of exclusion that cause students so much fear and anger. It recommends changes to curriculum, to teacher training, to discipline practices, to school culture, and the way families and community groups are involved in schools. It calls for teaching students how to embrace differences, resolve conflicts, and persist in the face of challenges.

The report is a blueprint for educational reform based on the principles of child and adolescent development, and it stands out among educational reports for a singular reason―its ideas represent a national consensus on how to improve our schools. The report is endorsed by conservatives and progressives; by business leaders and union leaders; by young people and parents; by scientists and educational practitioners. And the widespread appeal of the report flows from a simple premise: if we equip teachers to teach academics and social and emotional skills, too, we will be equipping teachers to be the best teachers possible.

Across the country―from Washoe County, Nevada to Nashville to Cleveland―districts are making social and emotional learning a cornerstone of their efforts. In Atlanta, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s commitment to social and emotional learning has spurred increases in graduation rates and decreases in discipline problems. Anywhere schools apply these practices well, they see gains across the standard measures―improved discipline, attendance, grades, test scores, and graduation rates.

In an otherwise gloomy time, this is more than good news: it’s a movement of hope coming to life offering direct and evidence-based strategies that promote happiness and success for all children. All children need to be able to understand themselves, build strong relationships and make good decisions.  All children need to believe in themselves and others, belong within a community, and have trust in the future.  Neuroscience underscores the point:  our brains are not hard-wired; they can change, and as our relationships get better, our brains get better too. This is where brain science meets school improvement and where inspiration meets education.

Through the Commission’s report and recommendations, states, communities, educators, and families now have evidence-based, expert-backed ways to foster every student’s social, emotional, and academic development. As these recommendations are adopted and this national movement of hope continues to grow, more students will be able to go to school and grow up in communities that truly reflect what we know about how learning happens.

Research shows that the best way for people to overcome division is not to focus on differences, but to discover a shared purpose through a common project. Expanding social and emotional learning in our schools is that common project.

It’s time for change.  We know of all the violence and despair that has devastated the lives of so many of our children. I am one of millions of Americans who has seen it face to face.   But now we know something equally powerful:  we can make a real difference in ending it.  Let’s come together and help families, schools, and communities teach our children the skills and tools they need to find fulfillment and success. When we do, we may just also find the best within ourselves along the way.



Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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  1. Quite pleased over the great strides Dr. Shriver has made over the years and wish him much success in continuing his great work!

  2. Good points. Trained teachers can teach social and emotional skills the way other trained teachers teach academic subjects. But ALL teachers need to be aware of the social and emotional challenges our young people face

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