Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Social-Emotional Learning Is More Than a 21st-Century Skill

By Peter DeWitt — April 23, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I know. Its 2014, so we have long been into the 21st century. I could have used College and Career Readiness but it was too long for the title. The truth is, SEL is a skill for any century, and we need it for college, career, or more importantly, our personal lives.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning as “the processes 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.”

Wow! The big red “EASY” button won’t help us meet that goal.

As we all know, SEL can be a big challenge for any of us from time to time. It’s not easy to find empathy in others who may seem as though they are on the other end of the spectrum from our way of thinking. Adults who work in schools can often find empathy with children, but finding it in other adults sometimes requires us to step outside of our situations and reflect.

If you’ve spent any time in K-12 education, maintaining positive relationships isn’t easy either. Students, no matter their age, fight with each other. Best friends today can be worst enemies tomorrow...and then best friends again the next day. Adults, no matter the profession you find yourself in, have the same issues. Sometimes it feels as though if adults would focus on work rather than on what their colleagues aren’t doing, we would all get a lot more done in our professional lives.

At times I believe we live in a society that wants everyone to feel good. Too many adults try to prevent children from struggling even though we all know that there are great learning experiences in the struggle. Some grown-ups around us want an easy road to live on, but setting and achieving goals is downright difficult sometimes. It’s important to have lots of good days, but that is not when we need social-emotional learning the most.

Education Doesn’t Always Feel Good

In a recent blogfor Finding Common Ground, frequent guest blogger Starr Sackstein wrote,

When learning is still new and there aren't negative consequences, like in early education, students don't fear being wrong. For example, once I read to my son's kindergarten class. After I did the reading, we went through a question and answer period. As soon as I started to ask the questions, all of the students raised their hands to answer. Without trepidation or fear of being wrong, their arms rocketed up as if by involuntary impulse and even when they answered incorrectly, they were undeterred. It was beautiful."

Starr, a high school teacher, went on to write that she wished some of the high school seniors wouldn’t fear being wrong so much. How does that change? What makes young students raise their hands without fear of being wrong, get to fifth grade where they don’t want to raise their hand at all? Is it fear of looking foolish in front of peers? Is it a lack of engagement that prevented them from hearing the teacher’s question because they were daydreaming about something else? Is it because they simply don’t care about the subject matter? Or is it something lacking in their social-emotional learning?

Learning is not always easy, nor should it ever be. When students are given the autonomy to follow their own learning, or have a teacher that helps them negotiate their way through learning experiences, there will be times when it feels easy and other times when it feels like a great challenge. That’s a good thing. Learning should be a challenge. What should feel good is accomplishing the goal after the hard work is completed.

In the End

The buzz phrase of the century is that we have to prepare students to be college and career ready. I completely agree with that goal, and it’s a goal many of us thought we were working toward before the phrase became so popular. As grade level teachers our goal was to prepare them for the next grade, but we also were working toward helping students become independent, and that can be accomplished at a young age.

Out of the eleven years I taught, seven were at the first grade level. I strongly believe first grade is one of the hardest grades to teach. In most cases, it’s where students are learning to read, they can just about follow one (MAYBE 2) step directions, but at the beginning of the year they do not do anything without asking the teacher for input...several times a minute. I LOVED teaching first grade.

As the year went on the goal was to help them become independent. Modeling authentic independent learning in first grade is a year-long goal, but it can be accomplished. This does not mean “Death by Ditto” where children have to do worksheet after worksheet and remain silent. As the great Todd Whitaker says, “You never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly by filling out worksheets.” It requires authentic learning, and lots of conversations. Have you ever talked with a first grader? It’s awesome.

The thing I found hard was finding a balance between giving students the answers when the going got too tough, and encouraging students to find the answers on their own was really hard. Working through that struggling period is a part of social-emotional learning.

At a young age, we have to teach children that not everything is going to feel good. None of us go unscathed in life. We all meet challenges and it’s what we do during those challenges that matters. School is more than just the Common Core, and it’s definitely more than high stakes testing. To truly prepare students to be college and career ready we need to continue to teach them the social-emotional skills they will need for college, career, and their personal lives.

CASEL offers the following SEL Competencies:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
  • Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
  • Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.
  • Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
  • Responsible decision making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.