Superintendents have immense pressure from national, state, and community entities to increase test scores. This pressure trickles downhill to building administrators and teachers, even being part of their formal evaluations. Because of this pressure, educator success is often defined by the percentage of students that pass the state test. Student success is even defined by tests scores as in many cases it can make the determination on whether students graduate and/or gain admission to college.

To increase test scores, we align our curriculum to the test, we word our questions like the test, we practice artificial situations like having students do timed writings, etc. The problem is that by doing these practices, we lose sight of making learning fun, engaging, and focusing on what is truly important for success beyond high school. Students come to us with countless barriers to accessing content, and teaching to the test can only make them disengage further, not see the value in school, or not work on skills that they need to be successful.

When we focus on improving test scores, we need to build student capacity first. We have all heard the phrase “Maslow before Bloom” in our careers, but what does that actually mean? Simply put, we need to take care of students’ basic needs before they can access the content that we are trying to teach them. This means that for some students, we need to work on their social and emotional skills. For other students, it means that we need to find them mental health supports. Some students even need access to basics like food and clean clothes. While it is true that many of our students have academic gaps, there are countless other reasons for those gaps other than their ability to learn.

“Student behavior is a much stronger predictor of student success than test scores are. Teachers who helped students improve their behavior were 10 times as effective at improving students’ graduation rates and GPA as teachers who focused on test scores.”

--Dr. Amy Fast, author of It's the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education

One of the biggest barriers students have is a behavior gap. This is oftentimes due to a lack of social and emotional skills. They might not know how to act in certain situations, they might lack the communication skills to express how they feel, and they can lack empathy...especially how their actions affect others. Here are a few ways that you can work in social and emotional learning into your day:

Circle Up--Instead of removing disruptive students from the class, or yelling at the class, help teach the class what is expected and how it impacts the learning environment. Have your class circle up. Set the expectations at the beginning, such as having only one person talk at a time, no cell phones, and to use positive language. Ask an open-ended question, such as “We do not seem to be able to get our work accomplished because of the current learning environment, who would like to talk about this first?” After a few students talk about the issue, prompt them to talk about how this makes them feel and come up with some solutions to solving the issue. It is important that students are not finger-pointing or being disrespectful to others. Instead, coach towards the issue at hand, not a specific student that is causing disruptions. Once some of the solutions seem reasonable and feasible, end the circle and get back to what you were doing. While this might initially take more time than just yelling or removing students, it will reap big rewards in the long run as there will be more accountability for the learning environment once students are empowered to help solve problems and build empathy for others. Protip--Make sure to ask open-ended questions. Asking “Do you think that this learning is conducive to learning?” can yield a yes or no answer. Instead ask “How is the current environment affecting your learning?”

Check-in Circles-This is a more proactive approach to social and emotional capacity building. While this does take away class time from academics, it will pay off in the long run. After all, what good is more time for a classroom lesson when the learning environment isn’t conducive to learning? For the first few minutes of class, have students sit in a circle and ask a simple question that might not have anything to do with the current lesson. This simply builds classroom community, helps students learn diverse perspectives, and helps the class learn things about others. Again, only one person should be talking at a time. Allow students to opt out if they have nothing they want to share. A great example of this in action was demonstrated at a professional development that I witnessed at a school. The staff got in a check-in circle before they got started with the day and were asked a simple question: “Describe how you feel about things using weather terms.” As you can imagine, some educators had some very creative responses such as “cloudy with a chance of meatballs,” “mostly sunny with a chance of rain,” “in the eye of the storm,” and simply “cloudy.” This was a low pressure way for the staff to talk about how they feel about all of the new initiatives, to feel heard, and for the administrators to get a pulse on the current climate of the staff. In your class, you can use a similar question, or ask something else like “talk about a time when you felt successful,” or numerous other prompts that can help students connect.

Building social and emotional capacity will lead to better test scores by not actually focusing on test scores as the sole focus. When students feel ownership of their learning environment, feel part of the learning environment, and build up their non-academic skills, they can better access the content and have a better attitude about school.

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