Navigating the Every Student Succeeds Act: The Engagement Factor and a Renewed Emphasis on Social Emotional Learning

The Engagement Factor And A Renewed Emphasis On Social Emotional Learning Thumb

Despite all the significance we place on emojis today, it’s real emotions that are central to student learning and can be expressions of student engagement. All of us in education are well aware of the renewed emphasis on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which is now being bolstered by ESSA.

There is a growing list of student behaviors from A to Z that demonstrate SEL, from adaptability to zest. As state and local education agencies incorporate SEL into ESSA plans, there may be more attention paid to:

  1. research on SEL
  2. critical behaviors for student engagement and success
  3. measurement.

Research Matters

Along with the growing list of desirable SEL behaviors for students and renewed emphasis on SEL, there's also growing concern about "fizzle" and repeating the mistakes of the so-called "self-esteem movement." Research can keep us on solid footing. As I've written in the past, we're in the midst of an evidence movement and new findings from learning science are helping us differentiate and improve instruction.

The work of Carol Dweck has been a catalyst to this SEL movement. Dr. Dweck has made growth mindset and fixed mindset a central part of the education conversation and she's produced gold standard research. She has also cautioned teachers against simply praising student effort as opposed to acknowledging outcomes in order to avoid of the self-esteem pitfall. She is clear that no one is all growth or, the opposite, fixed mindset all of the time. It's more nuanced and complex than that. Demonstrating a growth mindset is more than just trying hard! You do need to solve the problem at hand, persist, and analyze what works and what doesn't. If you haven't read Dweck’s book Mindset yet (linked above), I highly recommend it.

In addition to empirical evidence about mindsets we have other strong lines of research and a dose of common sense from practice.

  • Self-regulation is well documented in the research.
  • Executive Function—setting goals and making plans, for example—is necessary for demonstrating student agency.

Our task is to continue to examine the evidence and rely on a scientific research base when planning and executing SEL programs.

Critical Behaviors for Student Engagement and Success

If we're going to report and communicate with students and their families, we must be clear on what we expect.

If you want to take a brain break here, these are the desirable SEL attributes I've been reading about—so far I have listed them for 12 of the 26 letters of the alphabet:

Adaptability; Attention
Executive Function; Empathy
Growth Mindset; Grit
Manage emotions; Mindfulness
Perspective-taking; Persistence
Responsibility; Resilience
Self-regulation; Self-efficacy; Self-management; Social awareness

Did you think of others? In any case, a synthesis is needed.

Dr. David Dockterman, who blogs on these topics for The Spark and is leading ICLE's practice in this area, has encouraged us to use “learning behaviors” as an organizer. One of the best syntheses of learning behaviors that I've reviewed is this one set forth by the C.O.R.E. districts in California: MESH—Mindset, Executive Function, Social-Emotional, Habits. One member district, Long Beach Unified, has refined the concept and is reporting on:

  • Self-efficacy
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Growth mindset

This seems like a great starting place for defining and describing learning behaviors.


Assessment in the area of social emotional learning is nascent; it’s important to be able to identify something before we measure it. Many ESSA plans are looking at school culture as a way of identifying factors that indicate students are engaged. The California dashboard reports out on suspensions and graduation as well as the usual reading and math outcomes and these seem like appropriate representations of student engagement.

A brand new study by the Fordham Institute, What Teens Want: A National Survey of High School found that the lack of engagement was the main reason kids consider dropping out of school. The study found that 42 percent of teens didn't see the value of their work. I highly recommend you read the report as it goes on to describe student types and strategies for keeping them engaged.

ESSA is providing an incentive for all of us to tackle the important work of engaging students, recognizing the importance of emotions, and addressing the needs of the whole child from the early grades through middle and high school. Share your strategies for ensuring—and measuring—student engagement and supporting SEL in the comments section.

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