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Busting 3 Myths About Social Emotional Learning

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I've been wondering if we treat Social Emotional Learning as a solution to the problems students inflict on themselves or those from poor backgrounds or broken homes. If we’ve ever characterized our audience for SEL using this sort of mindset, we’ve entirely missed the point.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think you have to be mean-spirited to make this mistake. In fact, I think that can happen even with the best intentions in mind. I never intended to think of SEL as a solution for narrowly-defined groups, but my practice has probably said otherwise at times.

That’s not okay.

It’s imperative that we’re telling the right story with regard to SEL. Too much is on the line to stumble here. Framing SEL poorly tarnishes the life-giving value that Social Emotional Learning holds in the proper context.

Why Do We Narrow Our SEL Focus?

On the campus where I serve, part of our vision is that all of our students will know the value of giving more than they take, will be responsible for their own actions, and will know that they are an important part of our school community. If our work with Social Emotional Learning is narrowly targeted to specific groups, I’m not sure that we can do that.

We often narrow our focus with the best intentions as we try to accomplish ambitious goals like the one listed above. We believe addressing the areas of highest need best will solve the immediate problems, and the immediate problems are always what get the most attention.

I think there are a few myths out there that drive some of the decisions to narrowly focus SEL instruction. I’d like to share a few and offer a wider view that may help re-center some of our views of SEL.

Myth #1: SEL is for younger students.

Reality: While it’s true that younger students, whether they be elementary school students or freshmen at your high school, need a more fundamental set of skills for both academics and behavior, students of all ages can work to know themselves better, relate better to others, and make responsible choices.

Myth #2: SEL isn’t for students who excel academically.

Reality: While students who achieve well academically often present as having it all together, they’re often under a tremendous amount of pressure. Anyone who has spent time with students knows that this isn’t unique to high achievers. All students benefit from making good decisions about their needs as individuals and in relationships.

Myth #3: SEL is for students who weren’t taught to behave at home.

Reality: Although it’s commonly thought that some students simply know how to behave when they enter the school doors, I believe that it’s our job to make sure we’ve taught our expectations with fidelity to every student. At schools where most parents read to their children, teachers don't forgo their reading instruction, do they? All students should be equipped to manage themselves and their relationships with others in the school setting.

Despite the fact that it is sometimes treated this way, Social Emotional Learning isn’t an antidote for the side effects of youth, academic achievement, or behavioral gaps. It’s the means by which we can open all students up to the possibility that they could learn more about knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions than they thought possible.

Social Emotional Learning in Focus

Let me be clear: Even the best SEL instruction doesn’t level the playing field for every student. Students are going to struggle, it’s still going to be tough, and some will want to quit trying. That shouldn’t deter our efforts. It would be irresponsible to remain passive when we know that we can provide teaching to help students know themselves, relate well to others, and make responsible decisions.

If we’re not able to find time to help our students develop these qualities, I’m worried.

I think it is more than possible that students can be equipped with the knowledge and skills to choose something better than ignorance when it comes to knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions.

How could we allow that not to happen?

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Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Aaron Hogan's picture
Aaron Hogan
Leader, Questioner, Assistant Principal

I'm glad you brought this up, Sarah.

This is definitely something that we have to model and learn for ourselves if we want to faithfully apply that to our students. One way that we worked to do this is correlating our celebrations for next year with the times that referrals reached their peak numbers. Of course this is a small step and doesn't neutralize the draining effects of a long school year, but I know that a well timed soft drink or genuine thank you can make a great difference for many teachers.

That's at least a first step you could take. A full explanation is probably a blog post or two. I'll have to start putting a few ideas together. Thanks for the inspiration!

Sarah J. Donovan, PhD's picture
Sarah J. Donovan, PhD
middle school ELA teacher

I'd like to hear how you cultivate positive team and department meetings, too. We've been working on minimizing "war stories" as one teacher put it.

Aaron Hogan's picture
Aaron Hogan
Leader, Questioner, Assistant Principal

Great question, Sarah. I think you are right to avoid the war stories. They often promote assumptions and hasty generalizations, and rarely do they help us see students as individuals who are capable learners.

Buy in is huge for us. Very little is decided in isolation at the department or campus level. One way we've facilitated that buy in quickly is through a five finger vote on new policies or expectations. If you vote with a 5, you're all in and will help run it. If you vote a 4, you're in with no reservations. If you vote a 3, you're in but maybe not enthusiastically. If you're a 2, you're in with reservations, but you will be a team player. If you vote a 1, you have objections you can't overlook AND you agree to meet with a team to help us improve the plan. That's the more positive end.

While serving as the English department head a few years ago, I noticed that the mood off in our department (which was really the exception to the rule in among the teachers in our department). Things weren't tense, but people were feeling the weight of the work and morale was lower that I liked. I chose to make a space for people to air out some of their frustrations and propose solutions. We followed this model ( that IDEO uses to reimagine and then redesign everyday products. People were very receptive, and with a "help me know how to help you" posture, they were creative and innovative with some of their suggested solutions. Most of all, they felt very heard.

In the end, what you choose to focus on is what you will get more of. If administration, department heads, and campus leaders choose to make celebrations and positive communication a priority, teachers will often follow your models. Within your realm of influence, do what you can to promote positivity.

LTOchs's picture

We are currently involved in the rollout of a new blended learning approach to SEL in a mid-sized urban and a charter school in two different states. One of the basic foundations for creating a healthy SEL environment is to offer professional development to the teachers and staff first - giving them time to adopt a strength-based language and to create a positive team culture that can then percolate throughout to create a thriving learning community. Although our efforts are relatively new we have been very encouraged by teacher feedback from 5 public school demonstration sites ( I would encourage any district seeking to improve SEL for its students to bring this work first to its teachers and administrators.

Aaron Hogan's picture
Aaron Hogan
Leader, Questioner, Assistant Principal

I think you're exactly right about this! A SEL program can come apart at the seams if the message is inconsistent from different teachers or if there's a difference in opinion/interpretation/implementation between teachers and administrators.

Also, every time I receive any training that's designed to equip me to support students, I end up learning something about myself I need to change. It makes me a better husband, dad, administrator, and person. Why not lead SEL implementation with the adults modeling, right?

LTOchs's picture

I couldn't agree more Aaron! Modeling is critical. One of my favorite Roland Barth quotes is, "The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else."

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Hey Aaron, Edutopia recently shared this piece on Facebook. You may want to check it out:

My favorite comment from the conversation there is from Wendy Piersee. She said: "I personally believe the biggest myth about SEL is: Time spent on SEL distracts from time focused on academic achievement when the opposite is true...strong SEL skills support academic achievement."

Christina N. Smith's picture
Christina N. Smith
Literary catalyst inspiring a love for reading in children as a means to promote their self-growth & emotional intelligence

I know I'm "late" to the party with this comment, however, I just joined edutopia this month and there is a wealth of information to read. Well, I just came upon this "gem" of an article and I want to say, "Aaron, thank you for your willingness to learn, grow and lead by example." It is my humble opinion that a great leader's words thoughts and actions are always in alignment, which creates transparency. This cultivates trust and reverence for that leader. Thanks for what you're doing down there. I wish you had a twin because some districts in California are in sore need of the type of leadership you possess. Thank you for writing and sharing this article with the edutopia community.


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