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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.
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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,
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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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

Hello Deborah! ADD/ADHD is a symptom of a disconnect between the right prefrontal insula cortex and the cerebellum and parts of the brain stem. The connections are supposed to happen as a baby (0-12 months) moves in response to primitive reflexes and their natural motor development.Yes, as you already know, 50% of all kids "outgrow their ADD/ADHD". That's because over the years, parts of their brain get "connected" through how the child moves. Perhaps taking piano or violin lessons, Karate or Marshal Arts, Yoga, dance, soccer, etc. These activities provide tho motor & neural feedback that hook up the brain, but it takes A LONG TIME! 10 years or more. Now, the great news is you don;t have to wait 10 years for the connections to occur. Patterning exercises and bilateral motion activities done daily will begin this process. I just finished working with a little girl who was diagnosed with ADHD in January. her parents are a doctor & a lawyer - the little girl is a genius (IQ of 160). She did these exercises faithfully every day & by May her ADHD symptoms were G O N E!!! Also, her nuclear meltdowns stopped, she no longer ended up in the principal's office on a daily basis, her chapped lips went away (a sign her primitive reflexes got integrated) and she now cares for others, has made friends and wants to cuddle with her parents for the first time in her life. Before May, she did not care at all about being social, having friends & avoided cuddling. It's nothing short of FANTASTIC to see! I teach parents, teachers and therapists how to do this. Please visit our web site at We also have a local University beginning research on this as well as a medical school. You already know that people don't want to medicate their child, but until now they haven't had many other options. THIS makes a HUGE difference and we are incredibly excited to be able to share these exercises that reorganize the brain. I would love to hear from you! All the best to you my friend!

Deborah's picture
Second Grader Teacher

Technology and Social-Emotional Learning
Thank-you so much for your blog, Laura. I am taking 2 masters classes this summer. One is Leadership in Education where we use Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman et al. As I was reading about SEL, I quickly realized that it is based on the research in Primal Leadership. While my school uses the Baldrige Program, I decided that we can combine it with technology to build a social-emotional learning environment that you talked about.
With the help of my second masters class this summer (Technology in Education), I put together a proposal for our Guidance Counselor at school. James is a wonderful person and a great listener, so I am pretty excited to present this to him.
Since James promotes one character trait each quarter, it would be easy to assign each grade level questions that relate to a problem in a character scenario. James would put the scenario on a blog. This scenario would build a picture for the students that set the stage for school-wide discussions via the blog. Each grade level would have to respond to James' specific questions about the scenario. Kindergarten, of course, would have easier questions than the fifth graders. Students could post their responses to the blog either as a class or individually (with their teacher's permission). Older students would be required to do research before they answer the questions to move their thinking to higher levels. These students could work in groups via a wiki. Classes could make pod casts throughout the quarter that show their work and spur other student's thinking process. The pod casts could be shown on the morning announcements as well as on the school website. The final project would be a school-wide podcast or wiki that shows how our student body solved the problem in James' character scenario.
I hope to create a community-wide conversation. Through that conversation, students will make connections between thoughts, words, actions, and the outcome which affects their lives and is the goal of social-emotional learning.

Jen Audley's picture
Jen Audley
Manager of Online Communications for Responsive Classroom/NEFC

Laura, thank you for sharing your story here! I am so glad that Responsive Classroom is part of the movement to bring more social and emotional learning into classrooms and schools in Chicago!

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Bless you, Laura Morgan!

I didn't live in Beirut but I did live in Jerusalem. There are a lot of guns in Jerusalem, and stones too, carried by young people often driven to be hostile by the "truth" they have soaked in.

As a world, we need to do better. A great teacher armed with SEL can help young people stay open in their hearts and minds to new ideas, new possibilities. You're so right. That's also why I teach SEL. I relate to your story. My time spent in Jerusalem was the wake up call in my own life.

This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your journey.

Laurel C.'s picture
Laurel C.
Early childhood education, Upstate NY

I was touched by your blog. I do not live in a neighborhood such as yours. In fact, I live in a rural setting with very little crime. However, I understand the importance of your message and wonder if anyone has suggestions for my situation. I teach in a pre-school program that uses a creative curriculum. This allows the students to have freedom of expression through arts and play. My teaching goals are primarily to develop social skills and how to manage their emotions. These children come from lower socio-economic households and many seem to have a need to build self-esteem and confidence. Many need attention they do not get at home. I have just completed my first year of teaching in this program. These children go on to our public school for kindergarten. Teachers with the public school complain that our children are not coming to them prepared for kindergarten. In other words, they may not be able to cut a circle out by following the line, they may not know their colors 100 %, and they may have difficulty following teacher directed activities (one step at a time). As a graduate student, I am learning about professional learning communities. This concept seems to mesh well with SEL. If we could have more collaboration and interest in the child's needs to improve their learning - now and in the future - perhaps these children would have a better chance at success. Since our school district is not a PLC, does anyone have suggestions on how they have balanced diverse programs and expectations?

Laura Morgan, Ed. D.'s picture
Laura Morgan, Ed. D.
I am heavily involved in my community in promoting SEL.

Hi Laurel, thanks for your comments. Even though I've lived in Chicago for over 40 years now, I grew up in a rural area. I always felt like I was not connected in some ways in Chicago. Often my good intentions were misinterpreted. Initially I thought all I had to do was to learn the big city ways. Now, I know it goes deeper, having grown up in such a sheltered way my social skills were lacking. I believe SEL skills development is a must in rural areas, especially in the areas of critical thinking, decision making, and relationship building.

Your question regarding how to balance diverse programming with expectations is interesting. There are some vendors that incorporate SEL skills development in line with expectations.

Laura Morgan, Ed. D.'s picture
Laura Morgan, Ed. D.
I am heavily involved in my community in promoting SEL.

My pleasure Jen, I am going to have to do more research on Responsive Classroom. Thanks for the introduction.

Laura Morgan, Ed. D.'s picture
Laura Morgan, Ed. D.
I am heavily involved in my community in promoting SEL.

Deborah, thanks for sharing, sounds exciting. I love educational programs that combine lessons with technology. If the programs are on a network and provide additional work for students outside of the classrooms it could provide the students with additional exposure to learning over and above what is occurring in the classroom.

Laura Morgan, Ed. D.'s picture
Laura Morgan, Ed. D.
I am heavily involved in my community in promoting SEL.

Hi Virginia from Virginia Beach,
I am definitely going to visit the website to learn more about this program. Thanks for sharing!

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