Social and Emotional Learning

As education is an outgrowth of the needs of society, it is only natural that education systems vary from one community to the next and breed different schools of thought. Yet, a theme that remains constant throughout is the importance of morals and character building embedded into the curriculum. The purpose of education is not simply to prepare individuals to join the workforce but to develop people into full-fledged members of society, requiring an equal emphasis on traditional topics like math and science but also on developing emotional intelligence. How do schools today ensure that their curriculum emphasizes EQ as much as IQ? Cue: social and emotional learning.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which students acquire and 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 short, it is an educational framework for teaching important life skills in a participatory and safe learning environment, equipping students with the necessary social and emotional tools to navigate complicated situations and make intelligent decisions.

The idea of social and emotional learning emerged from a meeting in 1994 hosted by the Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting individual and community well being. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the multitude of ineffective school programs at the time, as schools were overwhelmed with youth development programs on sex education, violence prevention, moral education, and drug prevention to name a few. As a result of this meeting, participants concluded that at the root of all of these programs was the desire to equip students with the tools and knowledge to make intelligent, autonomous decisions. From this emerged the idea that instilling a set of social and emotional skills and attitudes in students is integral to their success and should be incorporated into the day-to-day curriculum.

Today, this school of thought is largely championed by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. CASEL’s mission is to help make social and emotional learning an integral part of education from preschool through high school by developing research demonstrating the impact of SEL, creating guides for teachers and districts to practice SEL in classrooms, schools, and communities, and helping pave the way for policies that allow for SEL practices that are scalable and sustainable. CASEL outlines five essential aptitudes for social and emotional learning: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. While the foundation provides a guide that outlines suggested methods for teaching these five aptitudes, each school and curriculum is creative in how they incorporate SEL in their particular environment. At Martin Petitjean elementary school in Rayne, Louisiana, students are taught self-management and responsible decision-making not through a particular lesson plan but by each being given a particular responsibility in running the school. Roles range from doing the morning announcements over the PA system to calling the school buses at the end of the day. The idea behind this initiative is that students are learning the value of accountability and working on a team; their teachers and fellow students depend on them for the school to be run properly. They develop their relationship skills through the need to coordinate their actions with others to complete their tasks, and they develop a sense of social awareness through knowing that if they don't complete their task, other people will face the consequences (i.e. if I don't call the buses, my fellow students won't be able to get home). They are made to feel as an integral and valued part of the team, strengthening their sense of self worth and belonging.

Developing these emotional and social skills at school is particularly important for students living in under-resourced areas, as these individuals often face additional stressors that make it more difficult for them to learn at school. Social and emotional learning better positions disadvantaged youth to catch up to their more affluent peers and teaches them to effectively navigate stressful environments by managing their emotions and seeking help when they need it. Giving a student an SAT book may make them college eligible, but teaching a student self-management, responsible decision-making and social awareness makes them college ready. An EQ/IQ blend helps students not only with getting to and through college, but with having a meaningful and successful career and life as well.

Michelle Vogt