AAC&U News, February 2020

Helping Students Thrive: Social-Emotional Learning and Supporting the Whole Student

Improving student success and equity in opportunities and outcomes has become a priority for many higher education institutions over the past two decades. Institutions are increasingly recognizing that what was once seen as simply a moral imperative is now also a strategy for financial sustainability. With declining undergraduate enrollment and changing student demographics, six-year graduation rates at 60 percent, $1.5 trillion in cumulative student debt, and the rising cost of attendance, it is no surprise that the general public, legislators, and higher education professionals are looking for innovative answers.

High-quality education takes time and effort on behalf of all stakeholders. It is not cheap. While we may disagree on the root causes of what ails higher education today, a good place to find common ground and start would be with our shared values and goals as demonstrated by institutional mission statements. The teaching mission of most of our institutions say something to this effect: to prepare students for meaningful lives, fulfilling careers, and responsible citizenship in a diverse and interconnected world. To succeed in our mission, our students need to graduate, find jobs, and learn while they are at our institutions. What they learn and how they grow will vary by institution, yet there are core skills and knowledge we expect all graduates to have acquired.

So, what can educators do to support our students?

Those of us working in higher education have come a long way in understanding student learning and success. Today we know much more about how students learn, what helps them engage with their learning, the array of problems they face and the burdens they carry, and how we can help them thrive at our institutions to serve the larger goal of higher education as engines for socioeconomic mobility.  

But there is a large gap between what we know is good for our students and how our institutions have actually embraced that knowledge to holistically support students’ physical, emotional, intellectual, and social well-being. The road to student success and thriving is paved with good intentions, limited and stretched resources, a longing for how things used to be, and the skeptical and siloed nature of our enterprise, which makes embracing change and collaboration across departments and units difficult.

While we seem to have a better handle on students’ physical and intellectual well-being, relatively speaking, faculty and administrators are not trained to foster emotional and social well-being. In fact, I would argue that we have not mastered those skills for ourselves.

The reality is that our students’ success, and by default our success, depends on our ability to understand the importance of social and emotional learning and the role it plays in helping all of us become active and productive members of our communities.

Important work is being done in this field at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence by its founding director, Marc Brackett, a student of Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who pioneered the work on emotional intelligence in the 1990s. Marc’s work highlights the need for creating emotionally intelligent institutions that support thriving, high-performance workplaces and learning spaces. The center’s evidence-based RULER approach to social and emotional learning provides participants with the tools to actively manage their emotions.

Research reveals that leaving emotions at the door when we enter our workplaces and learning spaces is neither healthy nor realistic. We need to understand and develop our emotional and social skills to thrive and be successful, as our cognitive abilities depend on our emotional state. How we develop the skills to effectively manage our stress, disappointments, and crisis situations—as well as our successes and joys—affects our ability to do our jobs effectively. There is a science that helps us understand emotions and acquire the skills to manage them productively. Once we are better prepared, we can help develop these skills in our students to build emotionally intelligent institutions.

To this end, AAC&U’s 2020 Annual Meeting included a day-long pre-meeting symposium on “Learning to Thrive: The Invisible Skills that Foster Student Success.” The symposium highlighted the critical need for institutions to understand and address “what it means to educate the whole student” and to foster and develop the “invisible skills” of social-emotional learning that “can make all the difference—in learning, in work, and in life.”

It is time for us to rethink faculty and staff development in higher education to understand and embrace social-emotional learning so that we can help build emotionally intelligent institutions. Our graduate programs that prepare current and future faculty also need to embrace social-emotional learning and the development of the whole student. We must also revise our institutional structures and integrate the work of independent offices and departments to create thriving communities where everyone feels supported to be their best selves and do their best work.

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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