Strong opinions, loosely held: Demystifying social emotional learning

Reflect briefly on what comes to mind when you hear the phrase “social emotional learning” (SEL). You might have strong opinions about it, and that’s OK; a lot of people do these days. Across the nation, heated school board meetings have made headlines as communities strive to address this question: What kinds of skills should and shouldn’t be taught in public schools?

Today I’d like to gently set the controversies aside and share some thoughts about what SEL really is—and what it isn’t. As you read this post, I encourage you to keep your initial opinion of SEL in the foreground of your mind while remaining curious about other perspectives. I’m reminded of the phrase that one of my colleagues, Jaime Vázquez, introduced me to: “strong opinions, loosely held.” Try to recognize when you might be holding your opinions a bit too tightly, so you can loosen your grip.

What the public thinks about SEL

According to a report released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute last fall, there is evidence that parents widely support the idea of SEL skills being taught in schools. Of the 2,000 respondents to Fordham’s survey, a great majority of parents agreed that schools should teach students skills such as:

  • Navigating social situations
  • Responding ethically
  • Preparing to be active, informed citizens
  • Understanding, expressing, and controlling their emotions
  • Empathizing with the feelings of others

When asked specifically about the term “social emotional learning,” however, parents were divided over whether it has a place in our schools. Interestingly, that division mostly followed political lines. Though there was bipartisan agreement about the importance of teaching skills such as those listed above, Republican families tended to have a more negative view of social emotional learning when it was explicitly described in those words.

But regardless of political differences, the practices embedded within SEL have been a valued part of our public school system for many decades. Instead of getting hung up on the name, we need to realize that most of us rally around the idea that students need a well-rounded education to become well-rounded adults. What we’re really talking about is how to strengthen learning culture, and SEL is just one of many ways to do that. Ultimately, we all share many of the same hopes and dreams for our students.

My SEL journey as an educator

Years ago, I took a language arts position at a local middle school, knowing full well that my teaching skill set was more geared toward high school. But I wanted the challenge. I wanted to grow in ways that would help me become a more well-rounded educator. One area in which I knew I had some unfinished learning was with SEL strategies.

I thought I came across as a caring, supportive teacher, but in deprioritizing social-emotional development, I inadvertently sent the message that my students—and their struggles—didn’t matter.

I already knew SEL was important, especially for that age group, but SEL wasn’t covered in my teacher prep program and I had only a vague idea of how to pull it off in a classroom setting. My unfinished learning made itself apparent again and again as the year progressed. Once, a student said to one of my colleagues that I “cared more about the standards than about the students and what they’re going through.” That was hard to hear. I thought I came across as a caring, supportive teacher, but in deprioritizing social-emotional development, I inadvertently sent the message that my students—and their struggles—didn’t matter.

Fortunately, I learned and grew quite a lot while teaching middle school, and I made strong connections with my students. But it wasn’t until I worked at an alternative high school that I really figured out how to support students in their SEL journeys. Most importantly, I began to reflect more on my own social-emotional strategies. I thought about my mother and her words of wisdom throughout my youth, and how she helped me learn to manage my own emotions. I thought about my ability to recognize when and how strong emotions are affecting my words and actions, and how I can usually deescalate those emotions or even channel them in productive ways. And in terms of social skills, I realized that while I’m good at navigating interpersonal conflict and finding common ground, I can sometimes let frustration and impatience seep into the words I use with other people, which might affect their perception of me and how they receive my messages.

Through all that reflection, I could see more clearly the connection between SEL practices and the more academic side of teaching and learning. I began to see that skills such as emotional regulation and effective communication aren’t separate from academics; rather, they are vital in creating a healthy classroom environment that’s conducive to academic success. I also realized that I needed to be more intentional about how I supported students in their social-emotional development. That led me to seek out new learning opportunities and resources, such as the CASEL framework.

The big picture: The CASEL framework

Because there are so many facets to SEL and different interpretations of what SEL even means, I find it helpful to keep useful definitions and frameworks close at hand. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

CASEL frames those areas of competence into five categories:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Relationship skills
  • Social awareness
  • Responsible decision-making

While the first two competencies are intrapersonal in nature and the next two are interpersonal, the fifth one centers around what an individual should do with all of these competencies to make healthy decisions. If you want to learn more about these areas, I encourage you to visit the CASEL website to take a deeper dive into their framework. It was definitely helpful for me as I wrapped my head around all the facets and what they entail. It also helped me locate SEL within the larger landscape of responsive teaching and learning.

I began to see that skills such as emotional regulation and effective communication aren’t separate from academics; rather, they are vital in creating a healthy classroom environment that’s conducive to academic success.

There are so many ways to use SEL in the classroom. It can often be an embedded element of the regular content. For example, we help promote students’ social awareness by asking questions that put them in the shoes of a literary character. We help build stronger relationship skills when we co-create classroom norms with students at the start of the year. We foster self-awareness when we ask students to reflect on their thoughts or feelings about a controversial topic that the class is exploring. And we promote responsible decision-making when we launch into a STEM engineering and design project to solve a complex societal problem.

Social emotional learning can also take the form of timely stand-alone activities geared toward self-awareness and regulation, such as mindful breathing, meditation, and emotional check-ins. In many classrooms, regular class meetings are a great way to normalize conflict resolution, problem solving, and healthy communication. As you learn more about how to apply social-emotional strategies in your classroom and your own life, CASEL’s SEL playbook is a great resource to help you put it into practice.

Reflect

Think back to the initial thoughts you had about SEL when you began reading this post and consider the following questions:

  • How has the information here informed your opinions?
  • Which SEL resources referenced above are you curious to explore?
  • What are some ways that you will build upon your existing practices and continue to strengthen the culture of your learning spaces?

By asking these questions—and any others that come up as you think about how kids learn and what they need from us—you can help demystify SEL for yourself and those around you. And the sooner we do that, the sooner we can move past some of the controversy around SEL and put our focus where it belongs: on our students, their well-being, and their prospects for success.

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