Column: Finding Common Ground | Opinion
Human beings are born in search of connection with an inquisitive mind. So why has social-emotional learning, or SEL, become controversial? When did politics and the well-being of our children become so intertwined? We need to have informed and critical conversations about what is really at stake.
Our children spend most of their waking hours with teachers and peers. Adults who work outside the home spend most of their waking hours with co-workers. Most people spend most of their waking hours with other humans. Why restrict the capacity for social connection?
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines core social-emotional learning skills as: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
There’s nothing inherently scary about these skills; people intentionally manufacture fear by twisting the message. In some places, proposed legislation and public outcry condemn social-emotional learning in schools with the biased label of “indoctrination”.
Every profession has its jargon, and I understand the need to differentiate for your audience. However, I hear frustrating suggestions to avoid linking SEL to equity as this introduces emotionally charged educational jargon. Why should we hesitate to associate SEL with diversity, equity and inclusion? It’s sneaky when there’s nothing to hide. And, if we walk on tiptoe, it’s impossible to communicate the truth: you can’t have one without the other.
Fairness evokes emotion, and we should take that as a sign of its importance. Rather than talk about it, let’s learn to consider the charge of this word. Let’s be honest about what equity means to our students and to each other. Let’s have real conversations about what it looks, sounds and feels like at every age and grade level. This requires socio-emotional skills.
Now is the time to silence misinformation and turn up the volume on community education. Let’s be clear; it is not a teacher’s burden. Pupils do not need to be repaired. Systems need to be fixed. Therefore, we need to educate decision-makers, such as school boards and administrators, about the role of systemic SEL. We need to invite parents into this conversation as key allies and stakeholders.
We cannot educate people who do not want to learn. But I suggest a lot of people want to learn and can be swayed by a strong minority with a political agenda if we don’t step in and talk.
Turning up the volume doesn’t mean shouting. It means extending our reach through partnerships and showing the value of this work to everyone it touches.
When we teach students how to think, not what to think, that is SEL.
When we practice taking perspective without being defensive, that is SEL.
When we engage in collaborative problem solving, that’s SEL.
When we cultivate a positive learning environment for all students, that’s SEL.
When we promote critical thinking and responsible decision making, that’s SEL.
And yes, we will use these skills to examine inequalities and honor all student identities and experiences. We will talk about how to improve and plan action steps together.
We can’t afford to be soft. We must be direct about the needs of our students. It’s a shame that misinformation gets in the way of essential work, but it’s happening across the country. Hence the theme for International SEL Day on March 11: Finding Common Ground, Pursuing the Common Good.
All learning is social and emotional. To deny it is to reduce a classroom to an assembly plant. Call it life skills. Call it social skills. Call it soft skills. But don’t call it indoctrination. Instead, call for more community education on SEL and DEI. This is an action step. Let’s keep learning.
Dawn McGrath is an author, consultant, and founder of Well Together Now, K-12 SEL & Wellness. Learn more about his work at https://welltogethernow.com Learn more about International SEL Day and ways to get involved https://selday.org