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Friday / September 22

Helping Students and Teachers to THRIVE

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are now required to include at least one measure other than test scores in their accountability systems, and many districts are turning to SEL components to fulfill this part of the federal law. How will attention to the essential SEL skills help students maximize their chances for success? That, of course, will depend on how effectively school districts are able to capture the intellectual curiosity and emotional engagement of their frontline implementation force – the teachers.

Probably new workshops of the “spray and pray” variety, whereby teachers are handed assorted activities and tech tools and/or the “hit and run” lecture variety, will spring up in many school districts trying to encourage teachers to add SEL components to their already overfilled curriculums. Research clearly indicates that “one-shot” workshops (educational shorthand for superficial, faddish in-service education) has little effect over actual teacher implementation in the classroom, but unfortunately it continues to be the norm. While a workshop presentation can act as an impetus for change, long term transformation requires attention to teacher belief factors and attitudes (Silver, 1999).

In our new book, Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success, Dedra Stafford and I examine the many social and emotional skills important to student success. We are resolute in our confidence that incorporating self-smart and social-smart skills in the classroom can benefit every student from the high flyers to those who struggle. Effective teachers have always addressed many of the Thrive proficiencies, at least at an informal level, but even experienced teachers can improve their students’ prospects for success through an intentional and purposeful integration of essential skills into every aspect of the classroom.

We chose to write about those skills that have proven to be identifiable, malleable, and teachable, which we refer to as Thrive skills. Our Thrive skills include:

  • executive brain functions
  • mindfulness
  • self-efficacy
  • growth mindset
  • perseverance
  • resilience
  • optimism
  • responsibility
  • honesty
  • integrity
  • empathy
  • gratitude

Teaching Thrive skills has proven to be beneficial, but it does require additional education, planning, and implementation on the part of educators. As veteran classroom teachers we understand that teacher buy-in is integral to this goal.

We are optimistic that teaching kids the Thrive skills has the potential to not only close the achievement gap but also will help with critical school issues such as absenteeism, bullying, teen suicide, early drop-outs, apathy, classroom management difficulties, and other common problems. To prevent the new focus on SEL skills from becoming another failed education whim, we know that teachers must believe they have the capacity for building SEL skills in their students and that doing so will be beneficial to the individuals and to their classrooms as a whole. Two things must be considered in preparing teachers for their new role:

  1. Teachers need to hone and practice their own SEL Skills.          

What will determine the ultimate success of utilizing Thrive skills depends on the faithfulness of teachers to not only enhancing SEL skills in their students but also in themselves. Unlike traditional professional development models that assume teachers already have the necessary knowledge to implement changes in their learners, we propose a model that leads with the assumption that teachers, too, need guidance and practice in developing greater dispositions for Thrive skills in themselves right along with their students.

In a recent workshop we conducted with teachers on the topic of building a culture of empathy we randomly paired participants and asked them to look into each other’s eyes for a period of four minutes without saying a word. We asked them to really “look into” the person sitting across from them. After a few uncomfortable giggles and words, every teacher complied. The results were inspiring. Some cried together, some hugged, some clapped each other on the back, and all agreed that something profound has just transpired between them. The debriefing and discussions that followed were deep and meaningful. Too often teachers don’t get a chance to practice the skills we try to teach to our students.

  1. Schools and districts must make building SEL skills a priority.

Districts must provide the time, space, and attention needed to helping teachers develop an emotionally and socially healthy community in their classrooms and throughout their schools. Merely following a mandate from the state department by asking teachers to check off another box or write an additional objective on a lesson plan will not ensure that they are implementing the changes we hope to see on behalf of students.

Teachers require the same thoughtful rationale, demonstration, practice opportunities, discussion time, and chances for reflection we know are indispensable for changing habits in students. Educators need to experience support from their administrators at both the local and district level. Time should be allocated for teachers to observe one another, meet for discussions, and offer collaborative assistance.

The evidence is clear about the importance of helping students develop the “other skills” it takes to be successful both now and in the future. Self-skills and social skills don’t necessarily trump academic skills, but the two are intricately entwined. It is our hope that rather than adopting SEL components as a top-down-latest-and-greatest educational fad, districts will seize the opportunity to truly inspire and empower not only students but also their adult advocates. It is imperative to set in place a support system that coaches, nurtures, and supports teacher growth as well as makes them active participants in determining what works best in their classrooms.


Silver, Debbie (1999). A Study of Teachers’ Perceptions About Staff Development Factors and Their Classroom Implementation of Reform-Based Science Instruction. Doctoral Dissertation, Louisiana Tech University.

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Deb Silver is an award-winning educator with 30 years experience as a classroom teacher, professional development expert, and university professor. She has delighted audiences in 49 states, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East with her insightful observations and astute ideas for helping assure every learner a reasonable chance at success.

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