Social and emotional learning (SEL) may still be new to some educators, but the skills it teaches are the same we have been trying to help young people develop for decades. Adaptability, agency, collaboration, empathy, self-awareness, and purpose are skills and qualities employers seek in their employees, and—more than that—skills that support young people to thrive on whatever path they choose to follow.

Of course, we can’t talk about skill-building without addressing the environment in which students are expected to learn. After nearly two years of isolation, fear, and instability, many students and educators alike are showing up to school feeling far from their best—and the fallout is palpable, with student mental health deteriorating, academic performance faltering, and teachers resigning in record numbers.

Fortunately, we know that SEL supports students’ academic performance and overall well-being, and it doesn’t need to come at the expense of content instruction. SEL can be integrated into content classes, through intentional community building and purpose learning that makes schools more fun and supportive places for students to learn and teachers to teach.

Following are best practices to ensure that students graduate ready for life ahead.

Like many educators, I grew up in a time when schools emphasized respecting adults and not challenging authority. While respect remains important, the idea (in schools and society more broadly) has grown less unilateral—and for good reason! When students see teachers as authoritarian figures and learn that doing the “wrong thing” is cause for punishment, fear can hold them back from taking risks. Without this fear, students build resiliency, grow more willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones, and learn more readily.

Katie Barr is the director of education + Innovation at Wayfinder. She has held a variety of roles throughout her 25 years in education, including classroom teacher, school administrator, county director, school board member, and educational non-profit leader. Using Liberatory Design and Design Thinking models, Katie has reenvisioned educational systems at the middle and high school level in the North Bay of California.

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