The intended outcomes of the American public educational system have drastically evolved over the last 400 years. Originally, public schools were designed to prepare poor white students for the labor force. Native Americans, Africans and other immigrants were not considered citizens and as a result were not factored into the construct of the public education system. White families that could afford better options sent their children to private schools to get an education and prepare them for professional careers. The original public educational system was never designed with students of color in mind, nor was it meant to create independent thinkers and entrepreneurs or teach from a culturally inclusive curriculum. Fast-forward to modern day, and educational systems across this nation still operate from the remnants of these foundationally dysfunctional principles. Inequity in educational options has become one of many active and ever-changing social justice fights of our time.
Soldiers on the frontline of education reform have bravely put forth innovative methodologies for delivering instruction and modifying traditional educational environments, school types, programmatic focus, etc. The demand for education reform has largely been born from the glaring disparity in the quality of public educational options provided to impoverished communities, largely communities of color. The results of these approaches have varied, with some excelling but others failing to do much better than provide more subpar options alongside traditional failing schools. However, recent research developments have identified one area that has been lost or is often overlooked in the rush to provide viable options: the development of social-emotional skills in children.
Social-emotional skills, largely known as “soft skills,” are not necessarily a new concept. However, there has been a growing awareness around this idea of developing and integrating the development of social-emotional skills throughout a child’s development. Stated plainly, how can we expect a 5-year-old child who has experienced a traumatic event at home to stand in line quietly and pay attention intently all day? How do we expect a child that is worried or afraid to learn? In its simplest form, social-emotional learning acknowledges the application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to our still-developing children. Our children do not come to school as fully regulated adults in little bodies; they require molding and development. That molding will happen regardless of whether their surroundings are loving and nurturing or harmful and degrading. But the most powerful fact in all of this is that social-emotional skills can be developed no matter what environmental factors have shaped a child’s foundational beginnings, regardless of the child’s age.
So what are social-emotional skills? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning has defined the five core competencies of social-emotional learning as:
Self-awareness. The ability to effectively identify and express thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Self-management. The ability to regulate emotions, thoughts and feelings. Identifiable as impulse control, discipline and how one organizes themselves.
Social awareness. Awareness of other people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. Showing empathy and respect for others.
Relationship skills. The ability to collaborate, work with a team and establish and maintain healthy respectful relationships.
Responsible decision-making. Evaluating situations, reflecting on responsible responses and thinking through the repercussions of an action.
The development of these core skills across a number of national studies has produced average academic gains of 11 percentile points. Children develop the skills needed to accurately voice what they’re feeling, and the adults in the school building create the environment that ensures the child feels safe and respected when expressing thoughts and feelings. Successful SEL implementation in schools directly correlates to a decrease in behavioral infractions, hence breaking the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline. The implementation of an SEL curriculum teaches children lifelong skills for success by honoring their voices and advocating for themselves and others. For teachers, an SEL curriculum creates the space for relationships, even for those who aren’t innately drawn to teaching from a place of love. From this space, learning becomes possible, and outcomes become limitless.
When boiled down, at the core of SEL is the simple concept of love. SEL is how teachers, administrators and school support personnel actively display their vested interest in improving our children’s well-being and supporting them in reaching their highest potential. The concept of SEL is so simple, and yet has the capability to be incredibly transformative if and when it is integrated into the entire culture of schools and teaching practices.
Perhaps the most powerful and revolutionary educational reform initiative is, simply, love.