Social-emotional learning (SEL) seems to integral to my practice now. But it wasn’t always that way. When I began teaching, my view of the classroom was reductive and behaviorist. I believed that with the right incentives and an understanding of learning progressions that any kid could learn anything. I know now that it’s not that simple.
Almost a decade later, I find there are still major misconceptions about social and emotional learning, even though my understanding has evolved so significantly. Here are some misconceptions I’ve come upon over the better part of the past decade, and some ideas for how to respond to them.
1) Social-emotional learning is all about feelings.
Emotional intelligence and regulation are major components of social emotional learning, but it neither starts nor ends with these. Social-emotional learning encompasses a wide breadth of skills, including everything from awareness of emotions and physical impulses all the way to executive functioning, conflict resolution, metacognition, and engagement. It’s so much more than processing feelings, and it affects everything we do with kids. And I mean everything.
2) Social-emotional learning is only for kids with behavior issues.
Behavior not a big concern in your class? Then you might think that explicit instruction in social and emotional learning is unnecessary. It’s quite the opposite, though. Regardless of achievement levels, we all encounter obstacles throughout our lives. Explicit instruction in social and emotional competencies helps cultivate an awareness around how we think, how we feel, and how we interact with our thoughts and feelings. As a result, it’s important to teach these skills to kids while they’re regulated and before they’re escalated. If we don’t teach these skills to them in moments of regulation, it will be near impossible for them to apply them when they really need them.
3) Social-emotional learning takes away from academics.
I identify with this one especially, because I used to think it, too. In fact, when I first heard of the idea of having a daily morning meeting with structured greetings and explicit social-emotional lessons, I thought it was preposterous, mostly because I didn’t feel like I had the time. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to meet all of the needs of our academic schedule, meanwhile reserving the first 30 minutes of my day for talking with my kids about their feelings and social interactions.
I realize now just how incomplete my perspective was. I didn’t know the power of morning meeting for teaching children how to regulate their emotions and communicate, and how we could readily apply those skills in academic subjects. Now, I find myself constantly referring to many of my morning meeting lessons throughout the day, whether it’s when I’m redirecting classroom behaviors or coaching children through obstacles during math, reading, or writing. In reality, the minutes I spend every day reiterating these skills pay off in large dividends in other areas of the day.
4) Kids just need to toughen up and learn these skills like I did when I was a kid.
Yeah… how’s that working out for you?
“We’re going too soft on kids,” some will say. “They just need tough love.” In some ways, I agree. A strong social-emotional program will have clear boundaries with logical consequences. This is, however, possible while being empathetic, vulnerable, and caring in front of children. Tough love doesn’t need to imply authoritarian management techniques, and vulnerable social-emotional pedagogy need not imply permissive management. There is a middle ground if we lean into the tension.
In the real world, consequences are ubiquitous. They can be both positive and negative, surfacing themselves as mere byproducts of our behavior. In my opinion, the most meaningful consequences are manifested in the impact we have on one another. When my students need redirection, I always go back to the people they’ve affected, both positively and negatively. I assume positive intent by assuming they’re not intentionally hurting or bothering the people around them, and instead use their social mistake as an opportunity to broaden their social and emotional awareness.
By using natural consequences within interpersonal relationships, I am not only able to provide the “tough love” that lots of kids need to learn these tough skills; I am also able to use these missteps and social mistakes as true opportunities for learning. Rewards and consequences will not teach on their own; they require empathetic, authoritative adults to explain interpersonal consequences of social mistakes and provide opportunities to make amends when necessary. Moreover, they don’t necessarily build investment and intrinsic motivation within children if they are doled out mindlessly. Conversely, shedding light onto how consequences of social successes and mistakes invest children in these competencies because it’s instinctual to seek connection with others. They want to have friends, and they want to have a positive relationship with their teacher. And we can use their own behavior to reinforce this innate need.
5) Social emotional learning can be measured quantitatively.
Brené Brown’s groundbreaking research in vulnerability and shame all came from her challenging a long-held assumption about research. Brown actively worked against a world that claimed “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” We live this mentality every day in the education world. More and more, we are asked to quantify our results and qualify all of our decisions. While evidence should inform a great deal of what we do, we can’t count on all evidence to be quantitatively measured.
But Paul, what about self-reported reflections? What about surveys about students’ feelings and attitudes? What about observations?
Yes, those are tools that can help you glean some information about your classroom. Similar to how standardized academic assessments only provide a glimpse into one moment in time, the results of socio-emotional surveys are even more ephemeral, subject to quite possibly even more change than the results of academic assessments. Trust me, I’ve tried to measure social and emotional competencies quantitatively, especially through my work in personalized learning, but I found time and time again that I was doing this in vain.
This quantify-everything mindset is dangerous. If we try to measure social-emotional learning quantitatively, it makes us believe that these competencies are boxes to be checked off on a report card, when in reality, social-emotional learning embodies a significant shift in the culture of a classroom. Measuring SEL quantitatively tempts us into believing that a simple 30-minute morning meeting each day will teach these skills, when in reality, most of the practices that promote emotionally aware, socially competent children come from the cultural principles used to engineer a learning environment. And what matters most is that the adults in the classroom embody these principles every day.
What Matters Most for Social-Emotional Learning
Social and emotional learning begins with the adults in the classroom. We can talk about treating others kindly and regulating our emotions until we’re blue in the face, but every time the children see us make a social mistake or an emotional misstep, we reinforce archaic norms around social and emotional competencies that are toxic in schools.
Don’t worry. That’s not to say you have to be perfect. You’re allowed to screw up, as all of us do. What’s magical is that these are moments for learning, too. Over my eight years of teaching, I find that my social and emotional mistakes are just as powerful teaching moments as my successes. These social and emotional mistakes we teachers make–whether it’s an impatient tone or a short response to our kids–allow us opportunities to model what it looks like when we must make amends for a social mistake. They grant us the opportunity to show what it looks like when someone says “I’m sorry” and really means it.
When we do this, we model the true spirit of social and emotional learning. We normalize it by showing our kids that it’s a universal process that doesn’t discriminate by age. In fact, it ebbs, flows, and grows as we age, manifesting itself in different situations and settings.
But the kids won’t learn this if they can’t see it in action. It’s scary, I know, to make yourself vulnerable like that in front of a group of young children. But I promise it pays off in the long run.