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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teach Social-Emotional Learning for Better Schools, Safer Neighborhoods

Laura Morgan, Ed. D.

I am heavily involved in my community in promoting SEL.

When I was introduced to the term "social-emotional learning" and began to understand its meaning, I recognized it as a ray of hope. Hope for my community, which, seemingly unbeknownst to me, had changed dramatically over the years.

The only visible signs of change were the front lawns in the neighborhood, now less well-kept than in the past. Drive through the neighborhood today and you will see men standing on the corner of my block, where they have stood for years. But what you will not see is the blood that has been shed on that same corner, of men and women, young people to old. Yet the men continue to stand on that corner, where some of their own friends have lost their lives over the years.

Waking Up and Making a Difference

I started searching for answers to these killings in 2008 when my neighbor's son died on that very corner. My search led me to discover the concept of social-emotional learning, and I am eternally grateful. I believe with all of my being that it gives hope to my community and can help stem the tide of violence in my neighborhood and others.

When my neighbor knocked on my door that fateful morning to let me know that her son had been killed, gunned down one block from our homes, it is hard to explain the depth of my feelings. When I could finally breathe, what I did was evaluate myself and how I may have contributed to the senseless killing. I realized that not only didn't I know my neighbor’s son, but that I really didn't know her or the other eight children she was raising as a single mother.

Yes, I had spoken to her and her children in passing, but that was on the surface. Why hadn't I gotten to know them beneath the surface? I had been too busy with my own family, work, friends, etc., to get to know my neighbors. How did my block become a killing field -- nicknamed "Beirut," I later learned -- and how do we work to stop it? How did we get here?

In a sense, I had been asleep.

Now that I was awake, I had to decide what to do next. All this personal reflection was taking place around the same time our new president, Barack Obama, was elected. On January 19, 2009, he asked all of us to volunteer for a day. So I decided to look for an agency or organization where my family could spend the day volunteering, in my community or somewhere on the Southeast Side of Chicago.

When I checked the website the president's group had published, not one Southeast Side organization was listed. I cried, because it seemed nobody cared about the children in my neighborhood. I called up my local park district and asked if I could volunteer. I started going to meetings.

We Are the Change We Seek

Fast-forward to the fall of 2012, when I was introduced to the concept of social-emotional learning and, for the first time, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines the concept as a process through which children and adults learn how to effectively:

  • Apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to manage emotions
  • Set and achieve positive goals
  • Feel and show empathy for others
  • Establish and maintain positive relationships
  • Make responsible decisions

In an ideal world, social-emotional learning would be a part of every school curriculum in the nation.

In the quest to stop the killings in our community, my neighbors and I started a movement to have social-emotional learning whole-heartedly implemented in our local schools. In our research, we found that no elementary school in our area teaches social-emotional skills in any measurable way.

We believe that if children are taught sound decision-making, relationship-building, conflict management and other valuable life skills from pre-school through 12th grade, more of them will choose to go to college or enter the workforce instead of joining gangs and participating in negative activity that will only land them in jail before they begin their lives.

Like President Obama has said, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change we seek."

When I woke up, I realized that I had to actively participate in leading my community out of Beirut.

This article first appeared in Catalyst Chicago, www.catalyst-chicago.org.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

Greeting Laura, Thank you for your article. Yes, we definitely do need to get to know our neighbors and become our brother's keeper. I couldn't agree with you more. May I offer further insight... Emotional and social learning can ONLY happen if the limbic system in the mid brain is developed. That is where we form lasting relationships. People, including students of all ages, are incapable of making that heart connection and friendships with others if their brains are not wired to do so. It is biologically impossible. Two examples: Children and adults with ADD/ADHD have difficulties in moving on, forgiving & forgetting, etc as their circuitry in their emotional centers of their brains - their mid brains- is not completely "connected". Watch the kids in your classroom with ADD/ADHD and notice their superficial at best relationships with others. The is in direct correlation with 75% of the incarcerated population in the US having ADD/ADHD. May I propose that we need to change people's brains in order to change the person? It is chemically, electrically and biologically impossible to make changes in a human without changing their brain. After we have changed the person's brain, they will think and relate differently to their fellow man, violence will be reduced and true life long friendships will be created. In my 26 years of teaching, research, studies, lectures and application, I have learned how to make ADD/ADDH go away all without medication. There is a commonality between ALL children and adults with ADD/ADHD and it concerns their movements in the first 12 months of life. Schools need to have their teachers and administrators educated about this so they can REALLY make the difference you are writing about by implementing programs to connect the brains of the students. It is not hard to change the brain, connect the mid brain/emotional centers and get the WHOLE person organized neurologically, you just have to know how to do it. Once that's done, people will naturally care for one another and real change will occur. I see it every day. I wish you all the best and thanks again for such a great article!

Deborah's picture
Second Grader Teacher

Hi, Virginia. You have my attention! How do you make ADD/ADHD go away with no medication? I do not believe in medicating children, but it is very difficult to teach children who cannot focus. Please tell me how you do this!

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