This article originally appeared on the BOOST Blog on Tuesday, February 12, 2019.
Social-emotional learning requires the same kind of intentionality as academic learning and as adults, we have to model the social-emotional skills we hope to build in our students. Here is a painfully ironic example: Joshua Trump is an 11-year-old who was one of President Trump and first lady Melania Trump’s guests at the State of the Union. He is not related to the President but has been bullied over the last few years because of his name. “He said he hates himself, and he hates his last name, and he feels sad all the time, and he doesn’t want to live feeling like that anymore, and as a parent that’s scary,” said his mother. This is something I find heartbreaking. Melania Trump has taken up an anti-bullying campaign she calls “Be Best.” The irony of this campaign seems lost only on the residents of the White House given the rhetoric of the President, who habitually makes personal attacks against opponents. We can’t just talk about character education, we must model emotional intelligence.
Emphasizing character education in K-12 settings is a common practice. This is something that can be hard to disagree with, given the importance of character development, but unfortunately, in some schools, character education is focused too much on compliance while adults in the system are not always modeling the skills they emphasize. In my experience, when character education or anti-bullying efforts are effective, they are often framed in a more positive way – and focused on building life skills – rather than what not to do. I would like to suggest that to effectively combat bullying and build character in young people, educators should focus on supporting social-emotional learning.
Social-emotional Learning, or SEL, is a way of framing the non-academic soft skills that lead to the sort of emotional intelligence necessary to be successful in school and life. This work is at the heart of the most promising practices in youth development and it is a powerful way to frame our work. While the language might be a bit newer, SEL is something expanded learning programs have always been good at. Unfortunately, SEL is so familiar to youth development organizations that we might take it for granted as an outcome of our work – presuming that because we have always contributed to non-academic outcomes we are inherently good at it. Partnership for Children and Youth encourages schools to include expanded learning partners in the approach to SEL. I would add that expanded learning programs should take a moment to honestly evaluate their organization’s readiness and capacity to support SEL. After all, self-reflection is an important social-emotional skill. Here are a few guiding questions to reflect on:
Do the Adults in the School Model Social-Emotional Skills?
Here’s a hard truth: people do not mature just because they get older. People mature because they make an intentional effort to self-reflect and improve. Healthy habits, not the passage of time, build emotional intelligence. The adults young people see on a daily basis provide an example of how to behave. Regardless of what we say, it is our actions that instruct the children we are educating. In a school setting, this includes not just teachers, but all of the adults on campus and the organizational culture itself. One way to influence the organizational culture of the campus is to measure and improve the school climate and culture. I might be guilty of oversimplifying the field of organizational effectiveness, but I would suggest schools start by conducting climate surveys of all stakeholders (students, staff, and families), and then providing training and coaching (to all staff, not just teachers) to improve the conditions for learning.
Do We Have Shared Language for Discussing Social-Emotional Skills?
As schools and expanded learning programs intentionally support SEL, it can be productive to first ensure we all mean the same thing when we talk about SEL. Typically when describing social-emotional learning we begin with describing the skills we hope students will learn with our support. This might include self-reflection, growth mindset, self-efficacy, responsible decision making, and more. It can be helpful to select a framework for discussing these skills. One of the leading frameworks for discussing SEL was produced by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This framework is research-based, popular, and easy to understand. In California, we developed a similar framework that is aligned with the Quality Standards for Expanded Learning and can be used to help schools support SEL by partnering with expanded learning programs. Another benefit of this easy to understand framework is that there is a greater emphasis on growth mindset.
Does our Program Design Support Social Emotional Learning?
A common mistake in implementing a plan to support SEL in schools is to purchase or write curriculum. While it can be productive to have curriculum focused on SEL, the primary concern should be the conditions for learning. It is the school environment that supports SEL. Consider establishing routines and practices that build these skills in your program. For example, opening and closing circles can bookend the day with thoughtful, safe, reflective interaction between staff and students. Restorative justice practices can improve conflict resolution and minimize punitive discipline. Group projects and project-based learning can build responsible decision making and social skills, while well-run sports programs can build discipline and a sense of belonging.
Do We Measure and Improve Social Emotional Learning?
On an individual student level, there are promising practices in measuring and improving SEL, but with limited time and resources, I would suggest beginning with continuous improvement. High-quality expanded learning programs employ research-validated youth development practices that are conducive to academic and social-emotional learning. A continuous quality improvement cycle that employs program quality assessment, data-driven planning, and professional development can have a powerful impact on program quality. This approach also allows program leaders and school administrators to focus on improvement and interactions rather than performance. It can also be helpful to consider issues like equity and implicit bias. The school-wide approach to student discipline and behavior support can be an asset to supporting social-emotional learning, or it can undermine these efforts. We serve our students better when we resist the urge to tell them what to do and spend more time asking them to reflect on their decisions and improve. After all, would you rather be expected to “Be Best” or to get better with time and effort?
There are a number of questions we can ask ourselves and steps we can take to systematically improve social-emotional learning in our schools and this list is just the beginning. For more on how schools in California are supporting SEL, check out the California Department of Education’s Guiding Principles for Social Emotional Learning. I would emphasize this: we teach children to be like us, so we should be the best version of ourselves possible.