How Academic and Social-Emotional Learning Connect at River Heights Academy

Educators share the surprising link between academic achievement and social-emotional learning at this charter school in Flat Rock.

Each morning at River Heights Academy, students start the day with a morning meeting. Among the various greetings, announcements, and birthday wishes, children also engage with a social-emotional learning program that introduces or reinforces one of five core skills — such as self-awareness, relationship building, or responsible decision making.

“This is not a sit-and-get exercise, but requires active engagement,” explains Sarah Gaw, Network Director of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) with Distinctive Schools, a charter school network that includes River Heights Academy, a PreK-8 tuition-free charter school in Flat Rock.

Educators and administrators at River Heights Academy recognize the holistic value of SEL because of the proven link between social-emotional skill development and academic achievement. Students who learn self-management, for instance, tend to be more self-motivated and organized — all skills that lead to more effective academic learning. For this reason, social-emotional learning is not separate from academic learning, but woven into each student’s educational experience at River Heights Academy.

“Researchers say that social-emotional learning is important and, when explicitly taught in school, improves academic outcomes,” Gaw says. Conversely, students who lack these important skills are less able to persevere when academic content gets challenging, leading to frustration and withdrawal.

“If they don’t have these skills, as soon as something gets hard, they check out, which translates to missed opportunities for learning,” she explains. “They are not engaging with instruction or the cognitive lift needed when they push their brain to sound out a word or persevere.”

Skills for a lifetime

When strong feelings — such as anger and frustration — bubble up, learning tends to stop, so through an SEL curriculum called Move This World, students at River Heights Academy learn to recognize and name what they are experiencing with a growth mindset. Through learned coping strategies, students know they can walk away quietly, take three deep breaths, or use another method that works for them individually.

“That doesn’t mean they never have to deal with the situation, but they know they may need some time and space for themselves to bring their feelings down,” Gaw explains.

Students also practice the skills they learn at their morning meetings throughout the school day — for example during lunch and recess or when they get frustrated working with a challenging online learning program. “They know they have the skills they can use to persevere and get through the challenges,” Gaw says.

“By mastering social-emotional skills early on, students have what it takes to embrace challenges for a lifetime,” says Jessica Kull, Principal and School Director at River Heights Academy.

“In order for students to be successful in school and prepare for college, career, and life, they need a well-rounded background and the skills to get along with people and work through conflict,” she says. “Any 21st-century job-ready individual has to have those skills, and we know we are getting students ready for jobs that don’t yet exist. Academics are very important, but self-management skills are just as important, as we know these pieces are highly valued and sought after by employers.”

Personalized learning for each student

River Heights Academy isn’t the only school to embrace SEL as part of daily instruction for students, but just as teachers and administrators at River Heights Academy personalize academic learning for all students, they also personalize social-emotional learning in a unique way. Through the use of a direct, research-based social-emotional learning assessment called SELweb, teachers know exactly where a student sits compared to same-aged peers.

“SELweb is an assessment much like any reading or math test with right and wrong answers. SELweb was a missing piece of our whole-child approach.  This approach is personalized and meets students where they are, so we are not approaching instruction from a one-size-fits-all lens,” Gaw explains. “This sets us apart as far as SEL and assessing are concerned.”

River Heights Academy is working to include valuable information about each individual child’s strengths and areas for growth in their learner profile. “We partner the assessment with a larger conversation so teachers can look at the data and say that it makes sense,” Gaw says.

Teachers may recognize a student as an emerging leader because their assessment proves they have strong social perspective skills, for example. Teachers can also check in frequently with a student who is developing self-management skills — reminding them they have coping skills for their frustration. “We can have that conversation and students can preplan their approach, as opposed to being told what to do,” Gaw says. “When the student knows they have the ability to manage those feelings, that confidence comes and they build neural pathways in the brain and the learning is taking place.”

And, just as teachers help students through challenging algebraic equations, they coach and guide them when they get frustrated and just want to check out.

“You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t work well with others, gauge social situations, manage your own emotions and regulate — and have that self-awareness — you aren’t going to be as successful or as happy. There’s a sweet spot to that,” Gaw says.

She encourages parents who want to know more about River Heights Academy’s approach to SEL to reach out to see if River Heights Academy is a good fit for their family, especially if their child is struggling to stay engaged at school.

“We all want our kids to be smart and kind and empathetic and good problem solvers and wholeheartedly good people,” she says. “I’m a believer that if you approach everything you do this way, success naturally comes. And when things don’t go your way, you have the skills to be resilient and navigate the next part and plan. And that gives you opportunities for a new beginning.”

Learn more about River Heights Academy at

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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