In a divisive country, our kids have a better way
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We have been in our share of debates and presidential campaigns on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But today, being on opposite sides can be toxic, even violent.  Today, politics is dividing our nation.  The question is how can we heal? 

The answer may well be right in front of us in our homes, schools and communities: it’s our young people who want relationships and leadership different from what they see on the national stage.  And now we have new data to explain how they envision changing our schools and country to make it a place where everyone has a chance to be respected. 

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For the last year, we’ve reached out to a nationally representative sample of current and recent high school students who provide a striking antidote to an age of anxiety, bullying, and mistrust.  The kids have it right:  schools should be places that teach both head and heart—that teach how to get along with those different than ourselves, to foster belonging and compassion, and to develop other basic skills and attitudes that make us better, more effective human beings.

The new study should cause educators and citizens alike to pause.  While students value their teachers and give their high schools decent marks, the majority see a missing piece in their education – a lack of “social and emotional learning.” Recent high school students, out in the real world, see a preparation gap that social and emotional learning could help close. Such development includes understanding and managing emotions and stress, listening to and empathizing with others with different perspectives, collaborating with peers to solve problems, and fostering a culture of respect and trust. 

Surveys of employers show that these are the very skills businesses are seeking but not finding in workers. And America, with leaders at all levels who bully one another and can’t reconcile differences to get things done, could use a generation with these skills.  Yet, fewer than half of young adults believe their school did a good job helping them develop these life skills.  

Students also report the toxic tension of being both stressed and bored in school. They face  threats of repeated violence in their communities and schools (one college freshman recently wrote she is part of the “massacre generation”).  Youth also cite the presence of drugs and bullying, feeling alone and fearful, and experiencing the pressures of social media.

These challenges are often deeper for some students.  Black and Hispanic students believe their schools need to make more changes, and Hispanic and low-income students are less likely to feel physically safe and more likely to feel stressed and bored than their peers.

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The good news is that a majority of current and recent students say going to a school that develops social and emotional skills would improve relationships, reduce bullying, boost academic learning, give them real-world skills, and prepare them for college, jobs and serving communities.

Their instincts are supported by academic research, which demonstrates that high-quality social and emotional learning boosts many of the outcomes we already measure – school attendance, academic achievement, behavior, graduation, college attainment, employment, and participation in community.  And the young people are not just interested in their own success -- students in schools with a strong commitment to social and emotional development report volunteering at rates twice the national average and most would commit to a year of national service.

Those on the front lines of schools – teachers, principals and now students – are seeking an environment of greater respect and inspiration. An approach that strengthens academic instruction, not weakens it; gives students agency, not dismisses them; and enables them to participate in class, not be fearful of making mistakes.

America needs the talents of our young people more than ever, with the changing nature of work, an economy demanding more education from workers, and a country in dramatic civic decline. A national commission recently issued a report from the nation that makes concrete recommendations to move this important work forward in schools, districts and states. By listening to young people, and taking their ideas for reform seriously, we can help strengthen an educational system that remains the best hope for equal access to the American dream and a generation prepared to address the challenges of this century.

Such a movement doesn’t have to start from scratch.  The voices of young people are changing debates and outcomes in town halls, state legislatures, and the Congress in response to school violence, racial tensions, and other challenges. A powerful force of more than 16 million students attend high school every year. Their voices are critical to understanding more about how high schools can prepare them for their futures and to be the leaders our country so desperately needs.

Timothy Shriver is Chairman of Special Olympics and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush.  Both are co-authors of the report, Respected: Perspectives of Youth on High School & Social and Emotional Learning, and Commissioners on the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development at the Aspen Institute.