There IS a Reason to Be Worried About SEL
I always get choked up as the teachers at my school wave and cheer the students off on the last day of classes. We line the driveway, blow bubbles, cheer, and wave. We want to give them a send off that reminds them that we love them, ensure they know that they are a part of a community, and give them memories to cherish. The last days of the school year bring with it finals, locker clean-outs, and the emotions can be overwhelming for middle school kiddos. In short, the end of the year doesn't always bring out the best in any of us. It is bittersweet, like leaving an amusement park at the end of the day--exhausted, satisfied, and a bit disoriented. Everyone who teaches will attest that it is a rollercoaster ride to be sure.
This year's last goodbye didn't make me choke up though. My emotions caught me off guard as the buses rolled away. I wasn't sad, exactly. I was worried.
Let me explain.
As all of you know, there have been groups that are trying to discredit SEL (short for Social Emotional Learning), calling it indoctrination, likening it to Critical Race Theory. In Florida, text books were not approved because of their social emotional learning content. It's never been clear to me why anyone would want to attack a philosophy that focuses on some very specific competencies laid out by CASEL.
And then, as this year's roller coaster ride came to a screeching halt, it hit me. There IS a reason to be worried about SEL.
As our country seems to be imploding, it occurs to me that those who don't want schools to teach SEL are very worried because social emotional learning is dangerous.
Self-awareness asks students to analyze their own thinking, dissecting their motivations and work to both contain and express their emotions. It asks students to name their emotions and find effective ways to mange them. This is dangerous because those who have self-awareness are not easily excitable by heightened emotions and understand when they are being manipulated because they know their own thoughts.
Even more dangerous is Self-management. This competency teaches students how to control their emotions and not impose themselves upon others. This is dangerous because those who have self-management skills are able to communicate in effective ways and never simply overpower others, instead relying on relationships and common social norms to get along.
Responsible decision making is a competency that is always at play in school. We are charged with helping students learn social norms, interact with each other, and make decisions that are based on their responsibilities and rights. Not only do we focus on students' positive rights--things they are allowed to do, we also focus on others' negative rights--our rights should not impede on others; for example, a student has a negative right to feel safe--to not be harassed or intimidated. It is dangerous because when students learn responsible decision making which takes into account the other members of their community, the community becomes more diverse and inclusive.
Then there are relationship skills. For me, I model this particular set of competencies via a "caring classroom" which celebrates diversity of all kinds. We are all unique, we are all to be celebrated, and we all learn together, despite our differences. We create a community that is able to separate fact from feeling, and we learn how to coexist even when our feelings are big. How dangerous is that?! Relationship skills have the power to transform "other" to "us" in a community.
Then there's the obvious competency, the one that I thought was what was being attacked. Social Awareness is probably the most sophisticated and nuanced to handle in a classroom, as it requires some level of mastery of the other competencies. The danger here has always been clear: when you are aware and seek to understand "the other," you are essentially changing and growing towards a more complete version of yourself, impacted by the world around you, but also knowing that you have the power to impact the world too.
As my students waved out the bus windows, I realized that the reason some people want to quash social and emotional learning is because its existence actually improves the chance of students accepting each other, respecting each other, and trying to support one another on life's very bumpy journey. So, yeah, I'm worried.
The reason we should be worried about SEL is that our students need it more than ever, and there are grown ups trying to steal our students' competencies--ways of understanding themselves and each other. There are adults who are trying to put up roadblocks, and that should make us all worried.