Isn't this what we want our schools to be?

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

The following post was written by Soeren Palumbo, Vice President of Global Youth Engagement at Special Olympics.


At first glance, education can appear nothing but divisive. Topics of what and how we teach our children summon strong feelings rooted in the core of our identities. But through this, there are points of agreement about what we want our schools to be: we all want our schools to empower students to perform academically, prepare them for life, and provide a safe and positive social space free from bullying and other forms of abuse.


While education has no panacea, leaders across the country are realizing the critical role of social emotional learning (SEL) in creating the schools we want. SEL goes by many names (character education, 21st century skills, soft skills, and moral education are a few) and includes fundamental skills such as character development, self-regulation, ethical decision making, and self-awareness.


And though research has demonstrated the value of SEL, a key voice has been under-represented: current and recent high school students. A newly released study by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) shows those closest to the student experience — the students themselves — believe clearly and compellingly in the impact of effective SEL education.

Two students at Brighton High School in Michigan lean on each other while at an all school assembly

Indeed, the survey shows student belief in SEL’s role in any school realizing its mission. Students believe that SEL education helps them perform academically: 90% of recent graduates of schools with strong SEL education give their school an ‘A’ or ‘B’ as a place for academic learning; only 42% of recent graduates of schools with weak SEL education say the same of theirs. They also believe it prepares them for life: 83% of recent graduates of strong SEL high schools say that their school prepared them well for post-school success; only 13% of recent graduates from weak SEL schools say the same. And a majority of surveyed students believe that SEL education improves the experience in school by reducing bullying.


The response from these students joins a choir of diverse organizations advocating the value of SEL skill development, including the World Economic Forum, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Phi Delta Kappa, and others. This unison is striking — not often do education policy wonks, teachers, students, and community engagement groups of all stripes ‘sing the same song’ but SEL brings them together, creating outcomes they all can appreciate. The pressing question — and opportunity — is how to expand and grow this success.


Here, too, the surveyed students guide us. Of those surveyed, less than 25%feel that their school provides strong training in core SEL skills. And only 1/3 reported that classroom instruction is the most helpful place to learn SEL skills. But a majority responded that two particular co-curricular activities were most helpful: participation in musical groups (band, orchestra, choir) and organized sports. If we want our schools to be places that develop young people academically, prepare them for life, and provide an environment free from bullying, then sports are not a nice-to-have; sports are essential as an arena for social emotional development.

Two students from Lexington High School in South Carolina pose for a picture

That sport is the most effective medium to learn skills of positive social relationships, self-awareness, and empathy would not surprise any athlete. It is particularly plain to anyone who has participated in Special Olympics over the past 50 years. Intuitively, millions of Special Olympics participants with and without intellectual disabilities have — through inclusive sport — developed empathy, overcome fears of difference, grown self-confidence, and fostered meaningful interpersonal relationship skills. As research has caught up to Special Olympics, we have found that these are not curious by-products of a volunteer experience but rather SEL skills developed by creating social inclusion through sport.


But we have also learned that it is not enough to hope that these skills are developed. Research insights must carry policy imperatives and programmatic changes; and Special Olympics is working with schools across the country to create such changes. For a generation of high school students clamoring for meaningful SEL opportunities to improve themselves and their schools, a clear, proven path exists: Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools.

Two students from Papillion La Vista South High School in Nebraska carry in the school's Unified Champion Schools Recognition banner

Developed in partnership with the US Department of Education, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is a comprehensive set of school programming combining inclusive sport with youth leadership development. Students in over 6,500 participating schools in the United States are developing SEL skills by playing on sports teams that include students with and without intellectual disability and participating in clubs and student organizations that do the same. On the field, in the hallways, and in the cafeteria, students are building social emotional skills that will help them academically, prepare them for life, and develop a mindset of inclusion. And — not surprisingly, given the data from the CASEL report — independent research by the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston has found that participating Unified Champion Schools are reporting reduced levels of bullying, a stronger sense of community, and student bodies that are more open to –and accepting of — differences.


It is time to listen to the message that our youth have made clear and act to change our schools accordingly. As a teacher, work with your students to with tools such as Unified Champion Schools to make your school a place of inclusion and strong SEL education. If you are a parent, contact your school board or principal to share the CASEL report and demand that your child’s school prioritize opportunities to develop social emotional skills through tools such as Unified Champion Schools. If you are a student, share the findings with your peers and teachers to demand that your school be a place where students can grow into inclusive, empathetic young adults well prepared for their future academically and socially.


After all, isn’t that what we want our schools to be?