Social and Emotional Learning is Key to Solving North Carolina’s Top Education Issues in 2019

RTI International recently sponsored the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s Eggs & Issues Breakfast, an annual event which draws hundreds of leaders in education, government, and business to discuss the most pressing issues facing North Carolina schools.

At the event, the group unveiled their Top 10 Education Issues for 2019, which are:

  1. Renew North Carolina’s Commitment to Public Schools for the Public Good
  2. Target Rural North Carolina’s Unique Education Challenges
  3. Directly Address Persistent Racial Inequities in North Carolina’s Schools
  4. Seize Historic Opportunity to Advance Adequacy and Equity in School Funding
  5. Recognize that Teacher Recruitment and Retention Starts with Professional Treatment
  6. Strengthen Charter School and Private School Voucher Transparency and Accountability
  7. Eliminate Stress and Stigma in Testing and Accountability Policy
  8. Start at the Top by Investing in School Leaders
  9. Thoughtfully and Strategically Invest in School Safety
  10. Focus on Whole Child, Whole Day

There is a notable connection between two of these issues, Number 9: Thoughtfully and Strategically Invest in School Safety and Number 10: Focus on Whole Child, Whole Day, that is worth highlighting. Though they may appear at the bottom of this year’s list, these topics have a pervasive presence in every classroom in North Carolina.

As experts for RTI's Center for Education Services, we believe that all children deserve access to a quality education that empowers them to thrive. We also believe that achieving this goal requires a safe environment that attends to children's holistic needs. We need look no further than Maslow’s foundational hierarchy of needs to recognize that self-actualization cannot be achieved until basic needs, such as safety and psychological well-being, are first addressed.

The classroom-level overlap between safety and whole child development is relationships: educator to student, student to student, and educator to educator. Fostering environments that support  the authenticity of these relationships through social and emotional learning (SEL) can be transformative. Developing early SEL skills in children has been demonstrated to predict adult outcomes like higher educational attainment, stronger employment outcomes, better mental health, and reduced criminal activity and substance use.[1]

Supporting teachers to model these practices requires uncovering, understanding, and adapting instruction to the inescapable psychological traits that make us all human, including bias, empathy, attitudes, and beliefs. Emphasizing SEL in classrooms is not a substitute for a focus on instructional content; rather, it is merely an accelerant. Studies bear this out: going deeper with social and emotional learning practices has been linked to more positive student attitudes about school and improved scores on standardized achievement tests.[2]

There are also clear connections to the two of the featured items on this year’s list: Number 3: Directly Address Persistent Racial Inequities in North Carolina’s Schools and Number 2: Target Rural North Carolina’s Unique Education Challenges. In both cases, relationships serve as the bedrock of engagement across racial groups and across population contexts.

Social and emotional professional development focused on awareness building and cognitive bias are an essential stepping stone to improving racial equity in schools. Rural communities too often miss out on these kinds of opportunities due to resource constraints. It is encouraging to see recent NC grant efforts that put a greater emphasis on expanding opportunities for these communities that educate almost 40% of North Carolina’s youth.

In the course of working with K-12 schools and districts across our state in settings that are rural, urban, and suburban, we know that there are no universal solutions. Context matters. But no matter the setting, no instructional environment should be divorced from a purposeful emphasis on relationships.


[1] Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: the relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283-2290

[2] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405–432.

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