Setting the Standard for SEL

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The C.A.R.E.S. standards . . . help students learn the skills that we know will create the conditions for success in school and outside of school.

In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education released a policy report titled A Nation at Risk. Commissioned by President Ronald Reagan and Education Secretary T. H. Bell, the report didn’t mince words in calling for change in four key areas of American education: content, time, teaching, and expectations. Famously, the report warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people” (Gardner, 1983, p. 5).

One of the report’s five recommendations centered on standards and expectations, stating that schools, colleges, and universities should “adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct” (Gardner, 1983, p. 27). It was from this recommendation that one of the report’s most lasting educational reforms was born: the push for standards-based education.

Since 1983, American education has been motivated by the setting of academic standards to guide what students should know and be able to do. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published their Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics in 1989, which was followed in the years to come by standards for other academic areas (Weiss et al., 2002). For today’s educators, working with standards is practically second nature; they are used to aligning their lessons and units with state standards, comparing one set of standards to another, and measuring student progress with standards.

When The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (NCSEAD) released its landmark report From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope in 2019, the message was clear: social, emotional, and academic development “powerfully enhance” each other (NCSEAD, 2019, p. 45). The report called for policymakers to support educators with standards that clearly show the importance of prioritizing SEL skills. Researchers had reached similar conclusions and agreed that it was vital for SEL to be “translated into education practice (as standards with associated practices and strategies)” (Jones & Doolittle, 2017, p. 10).

Since its founding in 1981, Center for Responsive Schools has held the core belief that students need to learn a set of social and emotional competencies and a set of academic competencies in order to be successful in school and outside of school. These A+SEL competencies form the core of the Responsive Classroom approach. The five social-emotional competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.) are the launchpad for Fly Five: The Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum and for the C.A.R.E.S. Standards for a Course of Study, a set of developmentally aligned, research-backed standards for K–8 classrooms.

Over a period of two years, C.A.R.E.S. standards were researched and developed through a collaboration between researchers and educators. Twenty-seven elementary and middle school teachers and nine guidance counselors participated in the process, contributing insights about their students’ experience, development, and needs to ensure the standards are age-appropriate, relevant, and useful (Turner et al., 2019). The C.A.R.E.S. standards contain 23 research-based anchor standards and 300 age- and grade-appropriate skills. Each competency contains a set of educational standards that describe what a socially and emotionally competent learner should know and be able to do. Within each standard are developmentally appropriate skills applicable to students in each grade, from elementary through middle school.

For example, in the competency of cooperation, one of the standards is the ability to resolve differences quickly. In kindergarten, the associated skill is “compromise to play together.” By fourth grade, students are able to learn how to “use conflict resolution techniques to independently resolve conflict with peers.” At the end of middle school, eighth graders are able “to reach a compromise when conflicts arise with an individual” or “when conflicts arise within a group.” The same cooperation standard, when applied appropriately to different grade levels, translates into skills that students can learn through explicit instruction and demonstrate competence with as they continue to practice these lifelong skills. The C.A.R.E.S. standards support educators in identifying appropriate social-emotional skills for students to develop, and they help students learn the skills that we know will create the conditions for success in school and outside of school.

Learn more about the C.A.R.E.S. standards and how they align to your states’ standards here.