Social-Emotional Learning

Yesterday, I attended a workshop (organized by PTA) on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools. Our speaker, Caryn Curry of Mental Health America of Illinois, told us that that research shows that children who have at least one trusted adult–whether that adult is a parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, or the school janitor–are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. But, she said, children do not always identify that adult to the adult.

My conclusion? It’s important to treat all children with kindness and respect. You never know how they are going to internalize what you say to them.

 “Substantial developmental research suggests that opportunities to connect with supportive adults…  can help youth develop and apply new skills and personal talents.” It’s especially important for teachers and anyone working in schools to do so.

As a case in point, I offer up Mrs. Rasmussen. Mrs. Rasmussen was a P.E. teacher and gymnastics coach at my high school. While she was not a particularly strong role model for me, she seemed friendly and approachable. So, when I was a sophomore in high school, I asked her to write a recommendation so that I could take Honors gym during my junior and senior years. Honors gym, also known as Gym Leaders, was not based on athletic ability, but was a two-year program that most of the National-Merit crowd used to pump their GPAs.

She declined, and told me, “I just don’t see you as a leader,” as the reason for her decision.

For years, I believed that I was not a leader because Mrs. Rasmussen labeled me as such. It is a powerful reminder that a teacher’s words can harm a child. Indeed, it’s been 23 years since this conversation and I hesitate to define myself as a leader–although I clearly am–because a teacher once told me that I wasn’t one.

Although Ms. Curry told us that such attitudes persist in schools, I am incredibly thankful that this would not happen in my children’s school. I think this is in part due to the work of Ms. Curry, who works with educators and parents alike to advocate for the integration of social-emotional learning as a process within the learning environment.

Teacher Appreciation Week was earlier this month. Each year since The Boy began public school, I have been an enthusiastic participant in the week’s events that have been planned for our school’s teachers. Almost invariably, my favorite teachers are those who have helped me as a parent to see and respond positively to my children’s social-emotional needs by doing so themselves in the classroom.

Although SEL is an Illinois state mandate under the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003, I believe they would incorporate SEL into the classroom anyway because they know that SEL is a process that positively affects academic achievement. Per Ms. Curry, SEL also prepares children for the workforce by teaching them emotional awareness and a set of related social skills, such as collaboration and teamwork, communication, and life-long learning and self-direction skills. And it helps resolve conflict, and contributes positively to violence prevention.

If relationships provide the foundation for learning, it’s important that these relationships remain positive and nurturing within the classroom and outside of it.


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