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How to Teach Older Students Social-Emotional Skills? Try Civics

By Arianna Prothero — October 12, 2021 9 min read
Conceptual image of 3 students working on constructing a government building together.
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Civic engagement is the oil that keeps the gears of democracy working. But what exactly are the behaviors of an engaged citizen?

Understanding other points of view, solving problems collaboratively, and building relationship skills may all come to mind.

For many educators, those skills will sound familiar, because they’re many of the same taught through social-emotional learning.

Not only are the skills cultivated through social-emotional learning the same behaviors that power civic engagement, but the reverse is also true: Civic engagement can be a meaningful way to teach and reinforce social and emotional skills.

That’s especially true for middle and high schoolers who are searching for their place in their communities and the world and might not otherwise connect with traditional social-emotional lessons, said Jenna Ryall, the director of Civics for All, an initiative of the New York City department of education to promote civic engagement in the city’s schools.

“[Civics] is relatable. It’s a practical application of social-emotional learning,” she said. “I think that is the best way to teach social-emotional learning—if [students] can see how it’s applied beyond the classroom walls, if they can see how it’s improving their interpersonal skills, if they can see how it’s allowing them the opportunity of using their voice, if they can see the results of co-creating the school community with the adults around them and the respect they are getting as a co-creator of those things.”

Civic engagement is much more expansive than just voting. It includes volunteering, advocacy, and really anything to do with people coming together to solve their communities’ problems, including those in school communities.

A democracy can’t function properly without the participation of its people, and school is the perfect place for students to learn these skills, dispositions, and habits, said Rebecca Winthrop, a senior fellow and the co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. In many parts of the country, schools may be the only avenue for students to develop their civic muscle.

Researchers estimate that 30 percent of urban youth and 60 percent of rural youth live in what’s been described as “civic deserts,” said Winthrop. These are communities where there are few resources or opportunities—such as youth programming, culture and arts groups, and religious congregations—for youth to be civically active.

Nationally, civic engagement has been on the decline for years.

“I am very worried about evaporating civic disposition among large swaths of the adult population and I’m worried about what effect that is having on children,” said Winthrop. “No one is modeling this to them.”

One doesn’t have to look any further than a number of recent school board meetings across the country where community members have made threats to board members over masking policies, to see the value of well-developed social-emotional skills to civic life.

Giving students a say in how schools are run and opportunities to work together to solve problems are ways that schools can help students hone their social, emotional, and civic skills.

‘Students know best’ on bettering their communities

In New York City, the Union Square Academy for Health Sciences is doing this by giving students the chance to decide how some school improvement funding is spent.

Through the New York City department of education’s Civics for All program—which was designed to augment its traditional civics education with civic-engagement opportunities—schools can sign up to receive school improvement funding. But there’s a catch: The students decide how the money is spent.

Students work individually or in teams to propose improvement projects, and students and teachers vote on their favorite proposal.

The first year the Union Square Academy, which serves a high number of low-income families, took part in the participatory budget program it was awarded around $2,000, said David Edelman, who teaches social studies at the school. The winning proposal was for new water fountains.

Edelman had been discussing with his students the news that there were high levels of lead in the school’s drinking water. The old water fountains had long fallen into disrepair and were hardly used, he said.

“I feel like students know best how to better their communities and better their schools; they just need the impetus, the support, and the resources to run with it and to develop those solutions,” said Edelman, whose students are primarily Hispanic, Black, and Asian.

They are learning how to action-plan, make a case for a cause, mobilize their peers, and build consensus, Edelman said.

The participatory budget program is very similar to one offered by the city government, so students are learning how to navigate a process that they can use after they graduate to drive improvements in their broader communities.

“We have the right to have a say in how our school functions,” said Brisa Pereyra, a senior at Union Square.

She was a sophomore when the proposal for new water fountains went up for a vote. Brisa remembers waiting in long lines to get water from bottles and her excitement when she saw the proposal to install new water fountains.

In the last couple years at her school, Brisa has become very involved in her school and local community. She’s part of her school’s Key Club where she has helped raise money for hurricane relief and written letters to nursing home residents and children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She’s tutored Ukrainian students in English. She spoke at forums and on roundtables about climate change, youth civic engagement, and voting. And she’s joined in the climate protests led by Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist from Sweden. Brisa credits her teacher, Edelman, for encouraging her to get involved and pointing students to different opportunities.

Brisa said she has learned that she can have a say in what happens in her community and doesn’t have to just wait for things to happen.

“I’m learning to be prepared for other points of view. In the past, I have had trouble accepting what other people think,” Brisa said, “and learning to accept what other people think and learn from it, so I can have a better discussion for the next time.”

EdWeek Research Center student survey: In my school, I feel confident that I can work in teams with other students and solve problems/disagreements if they arise.

In a second round of participatory budget funding prior to the pandemic, students voted to install automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers around the building and automatic flushing toilets in the restrooms.

When Ryall, the director of Civics for All, sees what students participating in the program are doing, she sees them developing the core social-emotional-learning competencies, such as self-awareness, as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.

“With self-awareness, civics is asking students to consider the issues they care about, consider how they are impacted by their community, and understand themselves as part of and responsible to society,” Ryall said. “When you talk about social awareness, you have kids considering the community they are a part of, its assets, its deficits, its needs, what it cares about.”

Student Survey: Which of the Following Best Describes Your School?

33%Some students have opportunities to take on more traditional leadership roles such as student councils, patrols, or leading morning announcements
37%Students are offered many opportunities to take on leadership and decision-making roles, lead activities, and to be part of solutions and projects to improve their classrooms, school, and the broader community
22%Staff honor a broad range of student perspectives and experiences by engaging students as leaders, problem-solvers, and decision-makers, offering ways for students to have a real impact on the school. Students regularly initiate and lead activities, solutions, and projects to improve their classrooms, school, and the broader community
8%Students do not have opportunities to take on leadership and decision-making roles

SOURCE: EdWeek Research Center survey, September 2021

Students further fine-tune their relationship and responsible decisionmaking skills when they have to work together to come up with a proposal that will bring the largest benefit possible to the entire school community, she said.

The social and emotional skills students are learning—as well as the idea that they have a voice and agency—are the precursors to voting in adulthood, said Deborah Rivas-Drake, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan who has been studying how SEL can support civic development and capacity in middle schoolers.

“Even if it doesn’t lead to activism, that sense of ... shared ownership of a community is an important thing for children to have,” she said. “That would be one of the reasons teachers might develop class rules together [with their students].”

That is especially important for students who may otherwise conclude that their voice doesn’t matter.

“Larger society often signals to some youth that their communities are regarded as not having as much value,“ said Rivas-Drake. “So it is important [for youth] to cultivate ownership for themselves in order to advocate for resources later on.”

Giving students a say in how school is run is a key part of creating a school environment that promotes social and emotional learning. When students have more agency over their school lives, it helps them tackle some of the big questions they’re facing in the middle and high school years around identity, what matters to them, and their place in the world, said Melissa Schlinger, the vice president of programs and practice at CASEL.

Most schools give students at least some opportunity to take on leadership and decisionmaking roles in their schools, according to a survey of students in grades 6-12 by the EdWeek Research Center. But the extent varies to which students are able to really flex their civic muscle and feel confident in their abilities to work with other students to solve problems.

There appears to be a link between schools that have a strong focus and commitment to social-emotional learning and how active students are in their community. In a 2018 report, which included survey data of high school students and young adults, CASEL compared students from schools it labeled as “strong SEL” schools—where students reported there were positive school climates and relationships and feelings of safety and agency—with “weak SEL” schools.

Fifty-seven percent of students and young adults from schools with a strong foundation of social-emotional learning said that they regularly volunteered in their community, compared with 28 percent of students from weaker SEL schools. Furthermore, 77 percent of current high school students from strong SEL high schools said they would participate in full-time military, national, or public service for their community or country, compared with 62 percent of students from weak SEL schools.

There are many ways schools throughout the country can create more opportunities to hone students’ social and emotional skills through engaging them in their school and local communities, in addition to such initiatives as New York’s participatory budget program.

Schools can recruit student members to staff leadership teams addressing issues like school improvement or equity and diversity. They can encourage student-led advocacy around issues they care about. And schools can get students’ input on school climate, academic engagement, and relationships with adults and other students through surveys.

Schools can also have students examine the results and figure out ways to solve problems exposed by the data, said Schlinger of CASEL.

“We want to give kids opportunities to develop agency and a sense of belonging,” she said. “The sense of belonging is helpful because you want to create that safe space where kids can do that exploration and can feel connected to each other and feel safe and eager to engage in the learning.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as How to Teach Older Students Social-Emotional Skills? Try Civics


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