We all want children to have a positive self-image, be resilient when faced with adversity, and create healthy relationships. But what do these aspirations have to do with social-emotional learning (SEL)? States across the country have legislatively mandated SEL as a way of combating society’s ills rather than through the lens of equity. Such a reactionary view runs the risk of failure without first addressing the most critical feature of the movement: the adult.
What Is Social-Emotional Learning?
SEL is the lens through which beliefs, expectations, and practices are viewed. It is the belief that students reside at the center of the education ecosystem. SEL holds that adults have high expectations of students and convey them in safe, supportive, and responsive ways. Finally, SEL provides the framework for practices that intentionally build the attitudes and competencies to develop self-awareness, meaningful relationships, and the skills for becoming a resilient, contributing member of society.
This sounds utopic, but without deeply developing the adult competencies necessary to be responsive to students, the current SEL fad is doomed to fail. Many districts are already stretched beyond capacity, and mandates that are added on without first being woven into its improvement process are often met with skepticism and resistance.
Promoting SEL Through Equity
The premise of SEL is not new. Attending to the whole child can change a student’s trajectory. Thus the efficacy of SEL rests in the deep understanding that the adult who stands before the student has first recognized her/his own beliefs and biases, and has then learned ways to override those biases in order to be competent as a facilitator of learning in a supportive and responsive way.
They say awareness is the first step of change, and this holds true for developing adult SEL competencies and skills. So let’s start there. Everyone has biases, thus the goal of professional development should be to deeply learn, implement, and support adults as they look in the mirror and build their own culturally responsive skills. Next, job-embedded skill development should be nurtured through a strong coaching model that recognizes SEL as the foundation for academic improvement, reduced discipline, and increased student engagement. Finally, embed SEL into lesson plans, parent education programs, and district policies.
Why It Matters
Children come to school with their families, life circumstances, and beliefs about themselves on their shoulders. It’s here at school that educators have the chance to connect the student to their educational environment. Taking the perspective of the student, understanding the various barriers that can mask potential, and having high expectations for student success regardless of background and circumstance will result in a responsive mindset. Then, and only then, can the education system build a sustainable pathway for student success.
Schools must give themselves permission to stop reacting to every mandate that comes out of their state’s legislative house. Leaders must give schools permission to take the necessary time to develop their staff and every adult who interacts with students and explicitly teach the competencies that foster safe and supportive learning. True social-emotional learning can only be achieved when the adults have the competencies to see students as capable and valued individuals.