When our students return to school this fall, it won’t be “business as usual” for them—or for any of us. Student success—particularly during this disruptive moment in schooling—requires not only quality academic content, but also engaging students in their learning, reconnecting them to their school community, and advancing their holistic growth and well-being.
A new study by the Everyone Graduates Center (EGC) at Johns Hopkins University School of Education can provide a roadmap for how schools can help students across their academic and social emotional needs.
The research shows us that for students to learn and achieve, we need to focus on both academic content, like mastering fractions, and on expanding students’ social and emotional skills, such as persisting through challenges.
The study is one of the first to find a strong, statistically significant and consistent relationship between social-emotional skills and academic outcomes, and that making gains in social emotional skills is equal to an entire year of academic growth in math or English language arts.
COVID-19 has made it even more painfully clear that our current way of educating—with students sitting for five to six hours inside the schoolhouse, covering specific subjects in a specific way, and taking a prescribed assessment of what they’ve learned—is no longer tenable. What’s more, there’s an even greater urgency now that the pandemic has magnified stubborn inequities that have long existed in our education system.
If we want to ensure strong student outcomes, recover learning loss caused by COVID, and close the inequities so many of our children face, we must integrate social-emotional support and skill building with academics. The good news is that we know more today about how to support holistic student success than ever before. Even more encouraging is that the recent EGC study aligns with a growing evidence base and what we at City Year see every day when our AmeriCorps members work alongside educators as student success coaches in schools: learning happens through relationships.
City Year AmeriCorps members serve in schools as tutors, mentors and role models to thousands of students across the country. As they sit alongside students to help them boost their reading comprehension or tackle algebra problems, they are also helping them learn how to problem solve, work in teams and bounce back after setbacks. AmeriCorps members take a “by any means necessary” approach to learn what students care about, what scares them about learning and what may be blocking their learning. They make connections to remove those barriers and build up confidence and trust.
What is special about these corps members is how they leverage their near-peer age proximity to students to say, “Yes, I understand. Yes, I’ve gone through something similar.” And most importantly, “Yes, I care enough to listen to you share what’s on your mind.”
The EGC study—which focused on nearly 40,000 students in 326 public schools across 28 U.S. cities—also found that spending more time with City Year AmeriCorps members is tied to student academic gains, better attendance and stronger social-emotional skills such as self-management, decision-making and relationship building, which support long-term success.
Recovering from COVID-19 gives us a special chance to think creatively and collaboratively about how we catch students up academically while simultaneously supporting their social and emotional well-being. We can accomplish this by using practices that are backed both by research and by what we and our partners have learned from working with/from students and educators.
To jumpstart this collaboration, City Year has released a guide that highlights tools, practices and recommendations from a wide range of organizations for integrating social, emotional and academics to support student outcomes. To our educators, district leaders and policymakers: Let’s work together to create a more integrated approach to supporting our students. As we know from our experience serving in Philadelphia schools, these are the supports that are essential to success in school and in life—and they will be even more relevant for students as they navigate our new “normal.”