Imagine asking a business professional or manager to be accountable, to the minute, for a group of 30 adults day in and day out. This manager would need to be so effective that they not only provide clear tasking and instructions tailored to each employee, they would also keep each employee motivated and engaged in learning new and difficult tasks while simultaneously accounting for each individuals’ physical, emotional, and behavioral needs. It would simply be unheard of.
Now imagine being asked to do this for a group of 30 children, and you begin to scratch the surface of what we are asking teachers to do each day. In any other context, the idea of an adult single-handedly caring for 30 children at once would seem inane. Yet, across most of our current educational system, we ask teachers to not only safely care for 30 or more children on a daily basis, but also to facilitate learning of complex tasks like literacy and math according to exceptionally rigorous and specific standards while skillfully navigating the diverse emotional and learning needs of each individual child.
Though this may seem like a grim outlook, these are the conditions of our current playing field. Until we achieve collective reform of our educational system we must cultivate a willingness to honestly appraise the current system in order to operate successfully within it. The current system is one of limits; among these time is perhaps the most precious resource. Here is where we pose our question: In a system where time is at a premium and stakes are high, how do we prioritize Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?
A mentor of mine once told me, “If you are going to add something new to a teacher’s plate, you need to take three other things away.” Though we have seen the truth of this first-hand, we believe it is time for a new paradigm when it comes to SEL. We must resist the temptation to view SEL as just one more thing for the plate. Instead, we can view SEL as an integral and critical support for everything else we do.
When introducing SEL we often use the metaphor of wildfire mitigation: we can hope that the fires don’t happen and then run around desperately putting them out when they inevitably do, or we can take proactive measures to prevent the fires from happening in the first place. By investing time up front in teaching children to develop abilities like self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making we are actually freeing up more time for academic success.
SEL is also unique in that you are already doing it – you just may not think of it as SEL. Children are natural observers; they are constantly paying attention to social cues from teachers and peers alike and making choices based on these observations. Why not direct some conscious attention to the process? You may very well not have the time to teach SEL specific lessons – successful implementation of any SEL program requires a school-wide commitment from administrators and teachers alike. If you can take two minutes each day to stop and breath with your students, however, you are already doing better than the current majority of teachers.
The time is ripe for a systems level change. CASEL.org has established 5 Core SEL Competencies that are reflected in both State and Common Core Standards. In our hometown of Denver, Denver Public Schools has established the ambitious Denver 2020 plan that explicitly includes Social and Emotional Intelligence as a priority. In short order, we may even see national requirements and standards for SEL. Until then, start with the small steps and focus on what you are already doing. Practice coping strategies with your students. Build mindfulness into transitions and classroom routines. Choose books with clear emotional content and draw attention to these themes. In short, creating space for students' emotional lives is not just 'another thing to do' - it is an imperative.