Social Emotional Learning

What The World Needs Now…  And What Schools Can Provide

By Jim Grout

What does it take to educate a child today, to equip them with diverse skills and inner motivation to learn and make their mark in the world?  The short answer is, it takes a lot. A more comprehensive answer to those daunting questions are addressed in the release of Aspen Institute’s report “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, Recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development”, along with insightful commentaries like that of Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of Educational Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.  Both parties have shed a healthy light on social emotional intelligence, its place in the classroom and its impact on academic achievement.  Why is social emotional intelligence so vital in school, and how do students develop those skills?

Social emotional learning (SEL) is not a new concept. Its emergence as a separate and complementary program that should be offered in schools is a product of past educational reforms that worked to divide the whole of the traditional educational experience, emphasizing academic achievement at the expense of its essential counterpart: social emotional intelligence.

SEL isn’t about schools, it’s about people. More specifically, it is about being human and all that entails, much of which has been lost, in some cases due to the saturation of technology, or misplaced in continuing efforts to improve academic performance. Being human is a way of being in and interacting with the world. It depends on an awareness of ourselves and others, of the importance of relationships and how they can be grown and strengthened by our actions and perceptions, of the importance of shared goals and responsibilities. Social emotional intelligence is organic, growing and evolving over time as the individual matures and encounters challenges of increasing complexity. It does not yield to simplistic “how to do, or instructional guides. It is slow, patient work that depends as much on first being human, as it does on intentionality, or a comprehensive curriculum.

High 5’s Edge of Leadership program, a curricular enhancement combining social emotional learning, leadership training and team building, has evolved slowly and carefully over a period of 7 years. Every aspect of the program has been shaped through experience and reflects the insights and expectations of students, classroom teachers and school administrators.

The program’s goal is to teach social emotional intelligence and, at the same time, raise awareness of how we think affects how we act and how we act affects others. It instills an understanding of what it means and how to be human—and humane—and the responsibilities inherent in leading and living by your own example. EOL teaches that we are all leaders in the way we shape our behaviors to best serve often disparate interests—our own and others—meet challenges and solve problems collectively.

The promise of improvements in classroom and school culture, student academic achievement and well being, or increased professional satisfaction of classroom teachers, should not tempt educators into the quick fix, the canned curriculum, a sticker-based raising of awareness. Teaching social emotional learning requires study and years of training in solving the problems of classroom culture day after day, week after week, year after year.

High 5’s EOL  program is successful because of its practitioners’ patient observation and skillful adaptation of SEL resources for use in teaching children how to be better people. It is the single focus of their professional lives, not an addition to an already-full plate of academic responsibilities.

David Brooks, in his January 17 editorial in The New York Times, offered the following reflection:

“We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter with emotion. If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions. Teaching consisted of dispassionately downloading knowledge into students’ brains…Then work by cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio showed us that emotion is not the opposite of reason; it’s essential to reason…That early neuroscience breakthrough reminded us that a key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends. It reminded us that what teachers really teach is themselves…It reminded us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.”

The art, expression and teaching of that “whole person caring” is really knowing how to be human, understanding our strengths and our foibles and the ongoing and increasing importance of choosing between them in the way we live our lives and teach our children. SEL does not begin and end in school; it continues to exert its powerful lessons well after students receive their diplomas.  SEL evolves and improves with age, just like our Edge of Leadership program.