As a parent of a high school freshman would I agree that I want my student to develop and demonstrate empathy? The quick answer is most definitely yes, along with any number of additional positive character traits. I didn’t know, however, that demonstrating empathy is one of 35 standards that can determine college and career readiness.
It is the American School Counselors Association (ASCA) that codified these standards, categorized either as mindset or behavior standards. While the ASCA guidelines were published in 2014 a number of social scientists, authors, educators and parent organizations have been shining the spotlight for some time on non-cognitive skills and social/emotional traits that are better indicators of success than a student’s standardized test scores and GPA.
With a growing body of research, the attention of the popular press, and the ASCA guidelines in place, how are schools developing (or how can we assist in developing) the mindsets, learning strategies, self-management and social skills to bolster our student’s chances of success? The guidelines state that the counselors in each school are responsible for operationalizing the standards. Standards that are promoted within three broad domains; Academic, Career, and Social/Emotional Development, as your student advances through middle and high school.
Most high schools (and many middle schools) have online applications accessible by each student that provide self-assessment tools, occupational information and planning guides for career identification. Linking the academic work being done in the classroom to future careers is beneficial and provides some perspective. However, looking down the list of mindset and behavior standards it’s difficult to check off more than one or two. A ‘career’ remains remote, distant to the teenage brain so these once or twice yearly counseling sessions have a limited impact. The availability of this type of educational technology, while vastly improved from a generation ago, still lacks real world application.
Preceding the introduction of the guidelines for student success, Common Core standards have been implemented by a majority of states over the last 5 years. These are learning goals that outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. To measure what a student should know and be able to do states use standardized tests. The standardized test results are then used to rank states, school districts, schools and the teachers themselves. Many argue the result is instruction that ‘teaches to the test.’ The result is that incentives have shifted for key stakeholders with ‘learning’ being unintentionally engineered out of the classroom.
Finally, nearly all middle and high schools have school sponsored activities that include sports, organizations and clubs. These are broadly referred to as extracurricular activities which also occur outside of the school through other organizations. Oddly, while school funding to support these programs gets whittled away it is student participation in these programs that develop a majority of the mindsets and behaviors for success.
Countless studies have also show a correlation between participation in non-academic activities and better grade averages, better attendance, improved social engagement, … well, look at the list of 35 standards and a parent with a student in sports, band, scouts, volunteering, yearbook club, etc. can check off any number of the standards listed.
The important thing about extracurricular activities is that a student gets to participate with their peers/equals, where the experience happens now, is personal, and where the emotional investment is owned by the student. These are the activities that rewire a brain or reinforce existing pathways. As a parent it seems the most powerful thing we can do (apart from demonstrating the same mindsets and behaviors day-to-day) is encourage and facilitate participation in these activities, and acknowledge and recognize the standards that are exhibited. Your student will listen to your praise. Parents are the starting point to operationalize these standards.