Positive Learning Environments

On April 6, 2022, the House Labor, Health and Human Services committee heard testimony from Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond entitled, “Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Approaches in K-12 Education.” The science of learning in the last ten years has begun to include not just cognitive and academic learning evidence but also social and emotional learning evidence because it attends to how students feel in school and creates a more equitable learning environment.

Not all students come ready to learn and this gap reduces real progress on achievement to only those kids who are ready to learn. Historically, schools have worked very hard to produce student achievement as measured by test scores and grades but more recently have addressed this ready to learn gap, starting with the idea of emotional intelligence and then broadening out to social and emotional needs to create positive learning environments.

Positive Learning Environments Create Equity

Most recently, teachers and schools have recognized the power of positive environments on reducing stress. The pandemic caused nationwide anxiety in K-12 students, and schools responded first by going to remote learning, then hybrid, and now back to in-person, and the lessons learned were around attending to the stress that it caused in student performance.

A positive school environment supports students’ growth across all the developmental pathways—physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and emotional—while it reduces stress and
anxiety that create biological impediments to learning and teaches the skills students need to be successful.


The biological impediments include all the reasons that children tell us holds them back from learning well. Some of those impediments today are a result of the pandemic, the family trauma that children experience because of that and the challenge of returning to school in a new era threatened by virus exposure.

Successful Environments for Whole Child

In response to a new era of learning in a COVID-19 world, classrooms and schools are increasingly moving to implement the “whole child” approach:

Such an environment takes a “whole child” approach to education, seeking to address the distinctive strengths, needs, and interests of students as they engage in learning. Furthermore, academic learning and other accomplishments in the world depend on our ability to
integrate social, emotional, and academic skills: to clear our minds, focus our attention, manage
our emotions, communicate and collaborate effectively with others, and be resilient in the face of obstacles.


In fact, the whole child approach addresses the new stressors of student learning and some of the pre-pandemic stressors—such as learning gaps tied to poverty—in a way that supports more students achieving more learning than before. When talking about these learning gaps, the whole child approach will help create equity of learning outcomes by increasing learning opportunity for more students.

Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design

From new ideas for “productive instructional strategies,” and “explicit development of social and emotional skills, habits, and mindsets,” Darling-Hammond advised congress how to build on this movement by states and districts through expanded funding, community schools, teacher preparation and professional development, and alignment of inter-agency funding. Although schools have worked on social emotional learning, the science of learning now includes much more specific and tangible evidence that can be used by schools to improve student learning for everyone.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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