How (not) to Think of Social Emotional Learning

season ending%0AsaleA Lesson From 5th Grade PE

I can’t remember much from 5th grade P.E., but one day is as clear as can be in my memory.

On the day that I remember well, our P.E. teachers had us run and run and run for the first half of class (and I ran more than most as running was my thing). Once when we were basically worn out, the coaches used the second half of class to drive home a point about the value of taking care of yourself. They gave each student a straw and told us to run until they blew the whistle. So I’m running, running, running, and getting pretty tired. Finally the whistle blows and I think I’m going to get some reprieve when they give us our instructions: we are only to catch our breath through the straw we’ve been given.

As it turns out, that’s nearly impossible for a bunch of exhausted 5th-graders. I cheated because there was no way I was going to admit I couldn’t. I could hardly breathe.

My P.E. teacher went on to connect this to why folks with emphysema experienced exhaustion so quickly. I have no idea how accurate this comparison is, but for the first time, 11-year old me understood that this was why my grandmother always needed to take breaks while we were playing.

How We Think of Social Emotional Learning 

All this came to mind as I began to wonder if we’ve begun to treat Social Emotional Learning as a solution to self-inflicted problems. If we’ve ever characterized our audience for SEL using this sort of mindset, we’ve entirely missed the point.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think you have to be mean-spirited to make this mistake. In fact, I think that can happen even with the best intentions in mind. I never intended to think of SEL as a solution for narrowly-defined groups, but my practice has probably said otherwise at times.

That’s not okay.

It’s imperative that we’re telling the right story with regard to SEL. Too much is on the line to stumble here. Framing SEL poorly tarnishes the life-giving value that Social Emotional Learning holds in the proper context.

Why Do We Narrow Our SEL Focus?

On the campus where I serve, part of our vision is that all of our students will know the value of giving more than they take, will be responsible for their own actions, and will know that they are an important part of our school community. If our work with Social Emotional Learning is narrowly targeted to specific groups, I’m not sure that we can do that.

We often narrow our focus with the best intentions as we try to accomplish ambitious goals like the one listed above. We believe addressing the areas of highest need best will solve the immediate problems, and the immediate problems are always what get the most attention.

I think there are a few myths out there that drive some of the decisions to narrowly focus SEL instruction. I’d like to share a few and offer a wider view that may help re-center some of our views of SEL.

Myth #1: SEL is for younger students.

Reality: While it’s true that younger students, whether they be elementary school students or freshmen at your high school, need a more fundamental set of skills for both academics and behavior, students of all ages can work to know themselves better, relate better to others, and make responsible choices.

Myth #2: SEL isn’t for students who excel academically.

Reality: While students who achieve well academically often present as having it all together, they’re often under a tremendous amount of pressure. Anyone who has spent time with students knows that this isn’t unique to high achievers. All students benefit from making good decisions about their needs as individuals and in relationships.

Myth #3: SEL is for students who weren’t taught to behave at home.

Reality: Although it’s commonly thought that some students simply know how to behave when they enter the school doors, I believe that it’s our job to make sure we’ve taught our expectations with fidelity to every student. At schools where most parents read to their children, teachers don’t forgo their reading instruction, do they? All students should be equipped to manage themselves and their relationships with others in the school setting.

Despite the fact that it is sometimes treated this way, Social Emotional Learning isn’t an antidote for the side effects of youth, academic achievement, or behavioral gaps. It’s the means by which we can open all students up to the possibility that they could learn more about knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions than they thought possible.

Social Emotional Learning in Focus

Let me be clear: Even the best SEL instruction doesn’t level the playing field for every student. Students are going to struggle, it’s still going to be tough, and some will want to quit trying. That shouldn’t deter our efforts. It would be irresponsible to remain passive when we know that we can provide teaching to help students know themselves, relate well to others, and make responsible decisions.

If we’re not able to find time to help our students develop these qualities, I’m worried.

I think it is more than possible that students can be equipped with the knowledge and skills to choose something better than ignorance when it comes to knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions.

How could we allow that to not happen?

One Reply to “How (not) to Think of Social Emotional Learning”

  1. Rummages&Ramblings says:

    Great post Aaron, I agree that SEL benefits all our students, regardless of academic performance, age and behavior. I would also argue that we as adults would also benefit from these same strategies. Our jobs are highly dependent on collaborating and relating not just our students but our colleagues. Many disagreements can be tempered when we learn to understand our own motivations, the motivations of others and learn to emphasize. On more than one occasion I’ve had to help two colleagues work through differences that come not from some deep seated animosity towards the other person but a lack of understanding. When people talk past each other rather than to each other problems occur. I think we forget that we also need brain breaks, an understanding how how our own brains work and when we need to reflect on our own words and actions.
    loved this short article
    Thanks again for the thought provoking blog

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