The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
In other words, how to be a person! Or, at least, how to be a tolerable person.
While only a decade ago school administrators were doubtful of the need for SEL, nowadays more and more states are making SEL a curriculum standard. But there’s a danger in seeing SEL as a quick fix, a salve to the psychosocial wounds induced by school shootings, increased academic pressures, poverty, and other societal maladies. To successfully implement an SEL framework, the practice of nurturing personal and communal well-being must be fully embedded into academic settings.
Last Thursday, I attended a panel centered on how teachers can incorporate SEL into their classrooms. Representatives from four unique educational organizations (Catalyst Arts, Newsela, Flocabulary, and, the evening’s sponsor, Move This World) gave the audience a taste of the various shapes that an SEL curriculum can take. Catalyst Arts guides students in addressing social justice issues through art, Flocabulary and Newsela develop and distribute multimedia resources on topics ranging from gender identity to managing frustration to listening skills, and Move This World develops videos that support teachers in ritualizing wellness.
Despite the differences in style, the panelists unanimously agreed that in order to reach students, we must first elevate student voice. In this way, SEL is less about dictating student emotion than it is about giving them a common language as well as a safe, supportive platform from which to express themselves.
As wonderful as this sounds, panelists have run into trouble when it comes to establishing teacher buy-in. Obstacles they’ve encountered include:
- Teachers have often not addressed their own wellness (the profession is not exactly conducive to self-care), and so there can be a general lack of understanding as to why SEL is important.
- High quality SEL resources are not accessible.
- SEL wasn’t a thing back in the day, and so teachers lack a model for what it can look like.
Then there’s the question of how you measure social and emotional growth. (My vision: Will colleges one day ask for your empathy quotient in addition to your SAT scores?) Augustina Warton of Catalyst Arts says that nowadays it’s much easier to get numbers on the impact that SEL has on learning, but that schools still see SEL as distinct from rather than integrated with academics.
As schools increasingly assume responsibility in addressing issues related to bullying, trauma, and mental health, what tensions might arise between educational institutions and the communities they serve? In what ways does it make sense for technology to be a part of this work? And what shape does SEL take for students of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups?
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