As the 2021 legislative session gets underway amid a global pandemic, education and budget committees are gearing up for the return of a topic that proved contentious in House Education chambers last year: addressing the social and emotional health of Idaho’s students.
The topic is among State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s priorities for the new year and was the highlight of Monday’s ninth annual Idaho Business for Education legislative academy, where retired four-star general Craig McKinley discussed the importance of developing students’ social and emotional skills in the classroom environment.
McKinely, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, was among a group of educators and academic, business and military professionals that worked on a report called “From a Nation at Risk to A Nation at Hope” published by the Aspen Institute in 2019.
Focusing on students’ social-emotional skills was “in vogue” in the 1950’s and 60’s, Mckinley told IBE in a virtual conversation on Monday. But over the decades, “social emotional development did not receive the importance that we think it should have,” he said.
“A Nation at Hope” argues that building SEL skills and values (things like goal setting, collaboration, responsibility and problem solving) is critical to students’ academic and workforce success. Programs that teach students social and emotional skills see improved student behavior, better attitudes about school and increased achievement, the report says.
In conversations with the business community, McKinley said that the Aspen Institute found that a vast majority of employers think social emotional skills are the most important to success, and yet they are also the hardest skills to find. Human Resources departments look for skills like clear communication and self confidence in interviews, for example, so “it’s ironic that some young people have not learned that by the time they graduate from high school,” he said.
Idaho education leaders have put an emphasis on social-emotional learning, and last year Ybarra asked the state legislature for $1 million to train teachers in SEL. The budget ask ran into criticism in the House Education committee where some legislators said social-emotional learning should happen at home.
The topic is likely to come up again in 2021 as students and state leaders raise the alarm about the burdens of stress and anxiety that young people are shouldering during the pandemic. When the pandemic comes to an end, educators will likely have to triage the needs of students to make sure students don’t miss the basic social and academic skills learned when young people are in classrooms day in and day out, McKinley said.
“Teachers need to understand – and I think they do – that this is a very tough time for this generation of students,” McKinley said. “…We in leadership, in government, in business are going to have to stress that we don’t want to create a lost generation that will affect us in this global world we’re living in.”