What is Social and Emotional Learning?

When we conducted our research years ago, it was based on a simple question:  Why are some people happy and successful while many others struggle?

It was a simple question with a pretty complex answer, and one that certainly wasn’t what we expected.

Happiness and success are predicated not on what we know or where we come from; in actuality, they derive from how we think.

Now, I’ll admit that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the odds stacked against them, as do individuals with abusive parents or mental and physical handicaps.  It would be extremely short-sighted to say otherwise.

But here’s something to consider:  name any situation that someone is currently experiencing, and there are undoubtedly people out there who have overcome similar circumstances to find happiness, meaning and success on their own terms.

Social and Emotional Learning

The world is filled with inspirational people with disabilities and difficult backgrounds.  Millions come from inner cities and low-income areas, and millions more have faced abuse and traumatic situations in life.  It’s not easy and I’m not trying to minimize what they go through – I’m simply saying that it’s possible to overcome anything, and that doing so is all about mindsets.

The research we did on this has driven our work over the past eight years, and placed us squarely into an expanding education market called social and emotional learning.

So what is Social and Emotional Learning?

Earlier this month, I heard a presentation from Dr. Ruth O’Dell.  She framed Social Emotional Learning so beautifully, and I kept thinking it was something every educator and parent needed to hear.

With that in mind, I’ll share her definition (as best I can) with you in order to create a broader and deeper understanding of this critical topic.  My hope is that this will help drive more SEL programs being adopted and implemented in schools and youth organizations around the country.

First, think of an iceberg.

We all know the analogy that only 10% of an iceberg is above water.  And yet, the picture you probably formed in your mind is of the part of the iceberg sticking up past the surface.

Most of us see our children’s education in the same light.  The part above the water is their academic performance, the behavior and results that we can readily see.

Social and Emotional Learning

In schools, these are what every educator is held accountable for – student attendance, how they’re performing on tests, how many are getting into trouble, etc.

Because this is what we measure, every teacher is going to make these outcomes the focus of their efforts.  It’s simple human nature.

Unfortunately, that is not the biggest part of the iceberg, where the truly significant work needs to be done.   Social and emotional learning (SEL) is about focusing on the part of the iceberg that’s below the surface.

Social and Emotional LearningI have walked the halls of many of our schools around the country.  Our teachers are amazing.  We have gotten very good, even great at teaching subject matter.  But the answer to our kids’ struggles isn’t new curriculum or new behavioral support models.

The key is changing school culture, by going back to the basics of the language we use and the way educators interact with one another and the students they support.

That’s what social and emotional learning is all about.

The University of Chicago performed a fantastic study in June of 2015.  Titled Foundation for Young Adult Success, it framed (as well as I’ve ever seen) exactly what we need to build within our students so they can find the happiness we all desire for them.

The U of Chicago’s study points to three primary characteristics we need to instill in the next generation:

  1. Agency – This is simply the ability to make decisions, to be self-determined and to learn how to expand and reach outside of one’s existing circumstances in life.
  2. Integrated Identity – A sense of values or internal consistency across multiple social and emotional situations. It is about finding one’s authentic self, appreciating oneself, and finding comfort with who or what one is not.
  3. Competencies – These are skills and abilities that allow individuals to find functions, complete tasks and achieve specific objectives.

Social and Emotional LearningTo develop these characteristics in our students and children, we need to focus our efforts in four foundational areas that adults can directly influence:

  • Self-regulation
  • Knowledge and Skills
  • Mindsets
  • Values

Knowledge and Skills could be considered the part of the iceberg that’s above water:  it’s what we’re most inclined to pay attention to, because it’s what we’re best at addressing.

However, as with an iceberg, it’s the part below the water that we had better focus on.  If we don’t, we’re ignoring the source of the greatest danger.

This is what great social and emotional learning programs focus on.  By getting this right, the part above the water will be just the beginning of the positive transformational process.

Social and emotional learning is about teaching our students to self-regulate.

By increasing student expectations, we change the way they look at themselves and the future, which improves the decisions they make in the present.

By helping them understand the incredible value of the relationships in their lives, we change the way they look at and treat their friends, family and teachers each and every day.

By helping them understand that the future is a direct function of the actions they take and the decisions they make, we facilitate them taking greater accountability for their lives, which will help create different and better results.

Social and Emotional Learning

Great social emotional learning builds an acute awareness in our students of their unconscious and inadvertent limiting beliefs and thoughts.  It is much easier to adjust this thinking while they’re still young before it becomes ingrained.  This awareness of the power of their thoughts becomes the driver of better decision-making, reduced impulsiveness and increased intrinsic motivation.

Central to any great program is a self-discovery process and the building of an appreciation for ourselves and those around us.  It is this understanding of our strengths, interests, values and desires that provides the foundation for persistence – the ability to overcome challenges because our goals are bigger and more important than any single moment of adversity.

Social and emotional learning is also about instilling great values in our students.  Values have two playing fields:  the first is how students view themselves and the other is how they view the world.

Values are also the lenses through which we see the world.  Is the world a place of scarcity or abundance?  Is it bad and scary, or a place where the vast majority of people are good?  Can I trust the world around me and, if so, how do I lean into it to live the whole-hearted life I want for myself and my kids or students?

Social and emotional learning programs allow our students to find themselves and their places in the world around them.  The crux of this is living life with a service mentality, because we ultimately get out of life what we give to others.   We create deep relationships by offering our time and energy in the service of others.  We find great jobs and generate wealth by finding our purpose and sharing it with the world to the maximum extent possible.  And we find the most meaning in our lives by living authentically and to our potential, thus impacting those we care about and the world around us.

Social and Emotional Learning

Finally, social and emotional programs teach new and empowering mindsets to children.

My son’s soccer coach used to say, “Attitude is Everything and Everything is Attitude,” and it’s true on both the soccer field and in life:  the kids who succeed are those who maintain the right attitudes.

We need to work with our students on perceiving things differently.  It is these mindsets of our students that matter most:

They believe in themselves and aren’t derailed by losing or failing.

They say thank you and appreciate the things they have.

They have self-compassion and know how to give themselves a break.

They learn and grow through adversity.

They learn not to seek validation from others or focus on the extrinsic rewards that permeate our culture.

They are optimistic.

They understand the power of their own creativity and recognize how to adapt and leverage the world to their own and others’ advantage.

Social and Emotional Learning

My favorite quote is by one of my favorite people, Albert Einstein, who once said, “We cannot solve the problems we face at the same level of thinking that created them.”

We will not improve our education system by focusing on the same things we’ve always focused on.  It will change when we learn how to go below the surface and traverse the social and emotional foundations of our children.

At the core of resilience, grit, self-advocacy, self-determination, intrinsic motivation, peer and group functioning, self-efficacy and the multitude of buzz words that have infiltrated our education system are our mindsets.  They dictate how we think, how we view ourselves and our world, and the overall experience of our lives.

It’s a really challenging world that our kids and students are growing up in – one few of us have a clear understanding of.  Certainly, we don’t know what skills they’ll need in five or ten years, as these seem to change almost weekly.

What we can do is help them find within themselves the ability to adapt, and not just survive but thrive in this new world.  Because perception truly is reality.  Change one’s perception and you’ll change his or her reality.  Make this vision more positive, and you’ll positively impact the lives of the children you work with.

That is the goal of social and emotional learning, and the reason it’s so critical to integrate into our schools today.

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