Around the world, people want to improve education. Some want to strengthen basic academic skills; others want to focus on critical thinking. Some want to promote citizenship or character; others want to admonish against the dangers of drugs, violence, and alcohol. Some demand more from parents; others accent the role of community. Some emphasize core values; others the need to respect diversity. Through all the positions lies a consistent concern: Schools must become better at producing knowledgeable, responsible, nonviolent, drug-free, and caring adults.
Knowledgeable, responsible, nonviolent, drug free, and caring -- behind each word lies an educational challenge:
- For children to become knowledgeable, they must be motivated to learn and capable of integrating new information into their lives.
- For children to become responsible, they must be capable of understanding risks and opportunities, and they must be motivated to choose actions and behaviors that will be in their own best interests and in the interests of others.
- For children to be drug free, they need to be engaged in their schools and communities. They must have an incentive to be alert, focused, and available.
- For children to be nonviolent, they must not live in settings that model violence and must not look to violence as the best way to solve problems, and they need empathy and skills for everyday problem solving and decision making.
- For children to become caring, they must experience being cared about and cared for, of being part of a community that is welcoming, nurturing, and open to them and that gives them a valued and respected role and place in that community.
The challenge of raising knowledgeable, responsible, nonviolent, drug-free, and caring children is familiar to parents, policy makers, administrators, and teachers. But what may be less familiar and less well understood is the insight that each element of this challenge can be enhanced by thoughtful, sustained, and systematic attention to the social and emotional life of children. Indeed, experience and research are showing that promoting the social, emotional, and character development (SECD) of children is the hidden key to improving all of these outcomes, including the application of basic academic skills.
In every society, children will inherit social roles now occupied by adults. For that reason, and supported by brain research, learning can be defined as knowledge that is put into practice for the well-being of self and others. Our schools must give children intellectual and practical tools they can bring to their classrooms, families, communities, and workplaces.
A delegation from Singapore's Ministry of Education has just completed a visit to schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that have been leaders in promoting students' SECD. Why did these good people, whose schools are often held up as paragons of academic accomplishment, come to see these schools? The answer is simple: Their business leaders said that the products of their education had intellectual smarts but not sufficient workplace smarts. In a country like Singapore, where social capital is the most abundant and valuable resource, this is a cataclysmic recognition.
The world is waking up to the need to educate the whole child. For some reason, the United States seems to be in the deepest sleep, but it's showing signs of stirring. Let's keep the rousing going and get our schools up and in the forefront of whole-child education and a better balance of academics and SECD.
A new generation of SECD approaches is available to provide what schools need. When schools implement SECD effectively, the academic achievement of children increases, the incidence of problem behaviors decreases, the quality of the relationships that surrounds each child is enhanced, and schools become more inviting and dynamic places to be, true centers for learning. SECD has been called "the missing piece," the part of the school's mission that is close to the hearts and minds of educators but always just out of grasp. Now, the elusive is within reach, and it's time to grab SECD and use it to shape a new model of schooling.