Is this School about Heart and Head?

An atmosphere that provides support for one’s social and emotional learning and competence versus one that does not can make a huge difference in a child’s life. The difference is equal to the difference in the outcome of throwing seeds on cement versus planting seeds in enriched soil. And what a difference that is!

                                                                                – James Comer, Yale Child Study Center, 1999

School is back in full swing! Parent-teacher conferences are already this week. In this first part of the school year, take a moment to look at the school community you are joining or have been a part of for a time. Is the school truly advancing your child’s social and emotional development in concert with academically oriented pursuits? There’s solid evidence now that children’s social and emotional skills and the learning climate significantly impact their academic performance.[i] So it’s not just a matter of “Are my kids happy?”  or “Are they getting good grades?” It’s important to ask, “Are they learning to the best of their ability?” That means students feel connected to school and each other, are motivated to learn, have the necessary tools and skills for learning, and feel supported in their learning.

I’ve designed a quick and easy report card for you (below) to fill out as you go through a school or sit in your child’s classroom, to enable you to evaluate the climate of the school and its intentional support of students’ social and emotional development in concert with academic development.

When talking to parents about their process for choosing a school, most tend to go with the reputation of the school to inform their opinion. Many do not visit the school in advance of selection for a tour and most do not sit in on a class. Yet this school community will be a part of your family’s daily life for years to come. So the first step is visit, tour, observe a class! Don’t make a decision so important to your family without really exploring the environment first. It should be a place where you not only feel comfortable, but are eager to be since your child is going to need to be there everyday.

And if you are already a part of a school community, go ahead and sit in on a class now. It’s never too late. Good educators will see that you want to be supportive of the school and understand what your child/children are experiencing. Hopefully, it will also inspire more connections and relationships between you and teachers, administrators and other staff.  School staff know that those relationships with parents are critical to student success[i] but sometimes, are consumed with responsibilities and are not as proactive about developing those relationships. You can take the first step and it will certainly benefit your child’s experience at school.

There are many great tools and checklists out there to evaluate the academic rigor of a school. Each state education website (for example in Ohio, offers the ability to download public district and school report cards that list academic progress, demographics, and testing results. Also, check out for questions to ask on a schools’ academic rigor.

Follow the link to download a pdf of the Parents’ Heart and Head Report Card. Print out and take with you the next time you visit a school.


Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – For more on research and policy on social and emotional learning (SEL), visit the website of one of the premiere organizations advancing the science and practice of SEL in schools.

Edutopia – Produced by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, this website shows short videos of schools that excel in developing children and promoting excellence in learning, heart and head.

Read about my work in Toledo Public Schools integrating social and emotional skill building into the curriculum and creating a caring, supportive learning environment.

National Center for School Climate assists schools and districts in measuring and improving their school climate.

[i] Weissberg, R., &  Durlak, J. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning; A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development. 82, 1.

[ii] Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. (Eds.) (1994). A new generation of evidence; The family is critical to student achievement. National Committee for Citizens in Education.


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