Social Emotional Learning Standards: A New Definition

Last August, CASEL announced a “joint effort” to establish Social Emotional Learning Standards across 8 US states. For many long-time advocates, the creation of declarative, procedural, schematically-built guidelines will surely speed up consensus, funding and implementation of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in all classrooms.

But as we visit schools, what we sometimes hear is that the move towards standards could also be a dangerous one. Many of our pioneering educators view SEL as “untestable” and wish to protect their efforts from the academic focus of their state curriculum standards.

As the dialogue unfolds, both sides of the debate must carefully examine and define the sought outcomes for all children.

What Are Social Emotional Learning Standards?

Standards, in general, are composed of statements that express what a student knows, can do, or is capable of performing at a certain point in their learning progression (often designated by “grade” or its equivalent). A quick peek at the Illinois Learning Standards for Social/Emotional Learning (SEL) reveals three straightforward goals:

Goal 1 – Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.
Goal 2 – Use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
Goal 3 – Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.

These are great goals, and the learning standards associated with them integrate well with existing academic standards. For example, Self-Management skills include:

 – Possess self-efficacy

 – Work toward goals

 – Attention control

 – Manage personal stress

But something is missing. Something that the pioneers of social and emotional learning have long struggled with: the intangibles. We understand this, because we’ve been working with those early-adopter schools for over a decade now. This year, many of them will begin their 5th year of applying the mindsets and measuring results.

But before we get into social emotional learning standards, let me provide context from outside of the education bubble…

There Will Be Robots… Everywhere

Social Emotional Learning Standards Elon Musk

I only recently became aware of Elon Musk. While reading his autobiography, I became acutely aware of the fact that I really have no clue what the future holds. The world my children will grow up and work in is incomprehensible to most of us.

Through the lens of Musk’s vision of the world, I learned of the probable realities of driverless cars, affordable space travel, and something called Hyperloop transportation. He even got me thinking that we’ll colonize Mars in the not-too-distant future.

Considering this, I really have no idea what specific skills will allow my children to find happiness and success in a future where the academics they’re currently learning may, in many cases, be rendered obsolete.

However, I do know some qualities or characteristics that will allow them to navigate and thrive.

What We Know About SEL

Our research has shown that the qualities that empower humans to achieve happiness and success have not changed over the centuries. They’re the universal framework behind the 7 Mindsets, and I believe we can and should use them as guide posts for modern day education and the emerging social emotional learning movement.

As we consider the idea of social emotional learning standards, I believe we need to be very careful. SEL is not about content mastery, nor is it about competency development.

SEL is about changing the way young people view themselves, their environments and the future.

When we do this, we change the decisions they make and the actions they take. We empower students by changing how they perceive everything that they see and experience in life; in other words, changing their mindsets.

As education leaders around the world seek to define social emotional learning standards, I hope they have the wisdom and grace to think a little differently.

Fundamentals For Social Emotional Learning Standards

In defining the future of social emotional learning standards, here are seven qualities to help students live authentically great lives. Whether or not they can be measured and molded into standards, these elements must be at the heart of any SEL standards inventory:

1-Foster High Expectations

Much of our early work was based on research which showed that young people make decisions based on a 12 to 24 hour “time horizon.”

What that means is that they subconsciously ask themselves, ‘what will be the implications of my making this decision over the next 12 to 24 hours?’

“Should I get high” might be a question, and their criteria for deciding would likely be whether or not they’d get caught that night or the next morning.

“Should I quit school” might be a question, and not wanting to deal with a certain teacher the following day might be the driver of a very bad result.

In other words, their default is not to think long-term.

Young people naturally have an instant gratification mentality, and that promotes high risk activity.

The research showed that if we could push their perspective out by even a few weeks, they were significantly less likely to make potentially catastrophic life decisions like quitting school, doing drugs or risking pregnancy with unsafe sex.

Our students will rise or fall to the level of expectations we set for them and the expectations they set for themselves. If we can raise those expectations, we’ll make their futures brighter, and can drastically improve their decision-making process.

From a social emotional learning standards perspective, every SEL program must drive future thinking based on high expectations. Simply getting young people to think about their future can have transformative benefits.

Students should expect to be successful in life, believe the world around them will be supportive, and go through life with the certainty that they can and will make a positive difference.

2-Build Self Knowledge

We live in a savage world of comparison that promotes warped perceptions of reality and of what happiness truly is.

No longer is it good enough to wake up to a family you love and a job that matters to you. Reality TV and modern media have led us to believe we must be extraordinary, famous and instantly recognizable or we’ve somehow come up short.

The fact, however, is that happiness and meaning are extraordinary, and are actually the ultimate currency in life.

I love the quote by Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs, is people who have come alive.”

The only way for our kids and students to truly come alive in life is to build self-awareness and align their unique genius with the world they live in.

Successful social emotional education necessitates helping our students build an understanding of their authentic strengths, interests, values and desires. This must also be balanced with real self-compassion, and the ability to find peace with their imperfections and weaknesses.

Nothing in this world will propel their lives more than the confidence that develops through humility and self-understanding.

3-Drive Connectedness

Human connection is the antidote to anxiety, depression, violence and substance abuse.

When I’m struggling personally, the act of connecting with a loved one immediately brings me back to center. I’m reminded that I’m not alone, that I live in a supportive world, and that things are going to be fine.

Without connection in our lives, we feel alone and cut off. The natural downward rhythms of life become incredibly hard to escape.

In a world where the emerging technology that was envisioned to connect us is now doing just the opposite, we need to bring meaningful human connection back. One place we can do that is in the classroom.

A critical component of social emotional learning standards must be rich, meaningful conversations with our students about important topics. Through this process, we can teach them to share openly with and support one another. The little lessons – saying thank you, asking for help and listening – can and will make an incredible difference in illustrating the value of meaningful connection.

4-Promote Accountability

In the live programs we’ve conducted for many years, we have a concept called the seminal moment. It’s a magical point when something happens that changes everything.

Often, one of our students or speakers shares something incredibly meaningful, and everyone’s hearts perceptibly soften. When the heart softens, the mind opens, and students recognize their unique and powerful ability to change, and to control their destinies.

It’s so empowering for young people when they suddenly grasp that their decisions and actions determine their future. In other words, they are in control of what is to come, and this an exciting and scary realization.

Once a student reaches this point, things like self-advocacy, self-efficacy and self-determination become not just possibilities, but realities.

It is only when students experience this quality of recognition, in my opinion, that true growth can begin. And this can only happen once students take true ownership for their lives.

5-Elevate Perspective

Perhaps the truest and most powerful saying I know is, “energy flows where attention goes.”

The things we focus on expand in our lives. If we focus on our failures, shortcomings and handicaps, they become the foundation of more growth in the same vein.

Conversely, if we attend to the good things, our talents, the great relationships and the great opportunities, those become springboards to better lives.

The average human thinks 60,000 thoughts per day. 80% of those thoughts are negative, and 95% are repeated from the prior day. So not only is garbage streaming through our minds, it’s on auto-loop. Perception is reality, and we are creating realities that are neither positive nor productive.

We have to recognize this as a society and change the dialogue. Social emotional learning standards can help schools become places where we build positive new realities, in which people want to help each other, recognize that we all have great gifts to share, and we all expect to have productive and happy lives.

6-Foster Service/Empathy

Call it karma, the golden rule, or the universal accounting system, it doesn’t matter, but the truth is that we get what we give.

The people and the world around us respond in kind to the things we do and how we treat each other. That’s why empathy is so vital to instill in our kids and students.

Every social emotional learning program must include some element of service. Each year, every student should take part in an activity or project to help society and make their school, community or world around them a better place.

This is always an incredibly moving and eye-opening experience, wherein each student realizes their individual ability to positively impact others. It provides a critical sense of significance and self-worth that will stick with them forever.

More importantly, it fosters empathy and understanding.

Through the act of service, we gather true meaning from our lives as we connect with an empathic concern and appreciation for the struggles of others.

And, unsurprisingly, truly empathetic people are often the happiest people as well.

7-Create Presence

Disengagement is an epidemic in our society. Students are disengaged at school, parents are disengaged at home, and workers are disengaged in the office.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for all of us is to use the incredible opportunity of life to do something that fulfills our potential and allows us to feel accomplishment and pride.

Most of us are rarely in the moment, which is, by the way, the only thing we have any control over. If we want to have an impact, to find joy, and improve our lot in life, we must do so right now in this moment.

Students need to understand the power of presence, and of being fully engaged, whether it’s while performing an activity, listening to a friend, or even just experiencing a feeling.

The best definitions I’ve ever seen of happiness are rooted in our ability to be in the moment, experience emotion and perform activities that fully capture our attention.

When our students are present and engaged, they are living life to its fullest, getting the most meaning and preparing themselves for what lies ahead.

SEL is a big part of the future of education. I have seen the extraordinary abilities of our principals and teachers. I am amazed not only at their talents but at their hearts.

We can’t get much better at teaching subject matter. But new tools are needed to create stronger relationships between students and educators and to foster greater connection and community in the classroom.

When that happens, our education system will be able to fulfill its promise to empower every student to thrive and give every teacher that special gift of connecting with and positively impacting a student’s life.

As we move toward developing a blueprint for social emotional learning standards, we must get it right, because it will be the roadmap by which youth empowerment and transformation can take place.

I hope the qualities defined above will help our educational leadership make the best and most impactful decisions possible.

Learn more about how we approach Social and Emotional Learning Standards by giving us a call.

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