5 Things We Get Wrong (D’OH) with SEL

5 Things We Get Wrong (D’OH) with SEL

SEL.  Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

My lil’ ole school counselor heart should be beaming with joy.  SEL is FINALLY receiving the limelight it has long deserved in education.  Most everyone everywhere is proclaiming the importance of SEL!

So why do I want to smack myself upside the head (Homer Simpson style – D’OH) most every time I read about, hear about, or see an SEL effort in a school.

Because we keep getting it WRONG!

So before I start in with all the ways in which we are screwing it up, let me just say a few things about teachers that resent this new expectation in teaching.  Just recently, I am facilitating a training for an SEL conference, and a high school math teacher says,

“I have a lot of math to actually teach in my algebra class.  There’s no time for this SEL stuff.”

Ya killin’ me smalls.

There I am in a ZOOM session and I am looking around thinking to myself,

did he really just say that out loud?  Are we in 2021?

In all actuality, I get what he was really saying:

“I don’t want to do one more thing.” 
“I don’t want one more expectation placed on me.”  
“I don’t want one more thing that my performance is measured against.”
“I don’t want or know how to do this KUMBAYA, crap.”

“It’s a freakin’ pandemic.  Enough with the “oh…now do this.”

Obviously I am speculating what this man was feeling, thinking, and experiencing but these sentiments are prevalent.

I get it.  I absolutely get it.

Here’s why:
We have been asking our teachers to do more and more in the classroom in the context of greater and greater challenges and ridiculously limited resources. This was true even pre-pandemic.

They’re toast.
Put a fork in em’.
They’re burnt OUT!
They have full-blown compassion fatigue and school improvement initiative fatigue.

And now to top it off, they have COVID fatigue.

So this leads me to our first fail with SEL.

Fail #1: SEL is just for the kids.

Growth and development continues well beyond the age 18. Our brains don’t fully form until age 25 and neural pathways are created and pruned long after. We continue to grow, develop, and evolve throughout our life span (some albeit more than others – arrested development is the subject of another blogpost).  We have the capacity to widen our window of tolerance (which is at the crux of social-emotional capacity) at any age – thanks to neuroplasticity.  Adults need as much opportunity for growth and nurturance as their students.  Ask yourself, “what are we doing in our schools to genuinely encourage the social-emotional growth and well-being of staff?

And if you’re suddenly thinking that there are personal growth goals in annual professional development plans…well…that’s an F-.  Personal growth requires an abundance of courage and vulnerability which begs the existence of felt safety.  Evaluations, generally speaking, don’t conjure an experience of felt safety.

Fail #2:  SEL is a program, better yet, a curriculum.  

SEL is thought of as another core content area (like reading and math) that requires explicit instruction.  Many think SEL is the answer to our problems.  Best part, it comes in a box or on laminated cards with an accompanying script or in a series of artful Pinterest lesson plans, with assessment tools and clearly defined learning objectives.  As educators, we love things that come tightly packaged.  Let’s just call a spade a spade.

But thinking seriously, is that how you learned to control your impulses?  Through weekly lessons on impulse control in your third grade class?  And how good are you now at controlling your impulses when you are overwhelmed, stressed, and broke down?

You can resist the sleeve of Girl Scout thin mints? If so, you my friend are far stronger than I.

I taught lessons on impulse control in classroom guidance and during small groups when I was an elementary school counselor.  Prior to my exposure to the science of stress and trauma, I could never understand why those lessons didn’t seem to help my students control themselves better.

I think we’ve gone too far in packaging and codifying SEL as another subject area.  Why does that matter?  Because we treat it as another thing TO DO instead of the necessary context it provides for learning.

I think a better way to conceive of SEL is to ask ourselves, “how do we honor OUR social, emotional, and somatic needs through the physical structures and materials, routines, rhythms, and daily habits in our virtual or in-person classroom?

Fail #3:  SEL teaches kids to be nice and responsible in the classroom

Many SEL programs are focused on sharing acts of kindness or choosing love, speaking “politely,” and solving problems peacefully.  Although this may sounds like roses, butterflies, and rainbows, it reinforces the notion these prosocial behaviors (cooperation, empathy, etc.) are conscious, deliberate choices and therefore acting in “unkind” or “disruptive” ways is due to lack of choosing to do better or not knowing how to do better.  It ignores the truth that the vast majority of “unkind” and “disruptive” behavior is stress behavior that is involuntary and reflexive.  

As educators we can be seduced by the idea that kind, quiet, fidget-less, responsible, easy students are ideal learners.  But as adults, we recognize that we aren’t all walking around being kind, polite, and peaceful with one another all the time, and that’s probably a good thing.  There is a healthy place for outrage, disgust, and horror.

If we are striving to be a great nation, we need impassioned young hearts and minds that are fierce, bold, at times brash, and willing to take risks, say the “tough things” and speak “truth to power.”

Fail #4:  SEL is a set of skills

How SEL is defined is fraught with a cognitive bias.  CASEL describes social-emotional learning as the process through which children and adults acquire and apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills (cognitive, cognitive, cognitive) for managing emotions, setting goals, building relationships…

Let’s really look at that statement.  Let’s start with acquiring knowledge and attitudes.  I am just going to say it; this sounds an awful lot like white supremacy speak for white folk are going to teach black, brown, and poor white folk how to behave.  The underlying assumption is that the children are ignorant or underinformed about how to act with their emotions or have positive attitudes.  Again, the underlying bias is the assumption that no one has taught them. The logic follows that they need to learn the skills that will make them more successful learners and as one SEL curriculum states, be more productive. 

Decoding a word is a reading skill.  Adding and subtracting are math skills.  Typing fast is a keyboarding skill.  Together these comprise an academic skill set.

But the ability to connect, attune, cooperate, and co-regulate with others is a biological imperative.  It’s not a set of cognitive skills and if skills are involved, they aren’t the kind you learn in a classroom lesson.  As Dr. Porges reminds us:

Embedded in the social engagement system is our biological quest for safety and an implicit biological imperative to connect and co-regulate our physiological state with another.

Managing our affective state and accessing our uniquely human capabilities (i.e. empathize, speak, initiate and plan tasks) are the by-product of a regulated physiological state and an advanced state of maturation in child development.

We can refine etiquette and social norms (though they need to be culturally responsive and/or community-defined) through explicit instruction and reinforcement (i.e. “it’s thoughtful to hold the door for the person behind you.” Or, “say ‘please’ when you request something and ‘thank you’ when you receive something). But true social-emotional learning emerges as a result of safety, relationally rich experiences of belonging, and sufficient somatosensory experiences.

Fail #5:  CASEL is the foremost authority on SEL

I totally get and appreciate that CASEL (Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning) attempted to provide the field of education a way to “bundle” the essential capacities and conditions for learning that are unrelated to core academics.

Cool beans…but here’s the thing,

CASEL was not established in the neuroscience and other sources of information that help us now understand what hinders and aids children’s development.  And the vast majority of “evidence-based” SEL curriculum does not acknowledge nor address the dominant white cultural bias and norms that are inherent in a lot of programs and curriculums developed by white authors and researchers.

Want to understand more of what I am talking about? Check out Jones and Okun’s list of characteristics of white supremacy culture.

So what should we be doing if not teaching SEL lessons?

First, slow your roll.

Check in with your body.  When’s going on for you?  What’s the meaning you are making (i.e. the story you are telling yourself) about your body experience as an educator.  Notice your thoughts and how the thoughts are influenced by the visceral experience in your body.

Second, hold space.

Everyone is losing their sh*t.

“These kids…these kids.”  “They’re so far behind!”  “They were a hot mess before they’ll even be worse now!”  “They are getting nothing done.”  “I don’t think I can do this.”

Slow it down and hold space for the moment.  You’re overwhelmed and so are the kids.  Everyone is in the same boat.  We are starting from now, not pre-COVID.

Third, regulate your physiological state.

Move with your students (virtually or in-person).  Engage in something patterned, repetitive, and rhythmic.  Drumming, body percussion, echo clapping, sing together (if by zoom, you can mute everyone and have a giant lip sync), dance, move…move the body.

A lot.

Like every fifteen to twenty minutes.

For real.

Fourth, settle.

Engage in practices that help you calm down.  Pay attention to your breath. In particular, notice your exhale and see if you can exhale slowly, more slowly than you inhale.  Try a self-hold or a weighted product that stimulates the settling response in your body.

Fifth, connect!

Spend time with your students connecting about what’s going on.  Talk about the challenges of the school experience right now.  What’s been hard?  What’s been better?  What’s hopeful?  What’s worth trying to hold onto as we move back towards in-person learning? What needs to go?

Lastly, speak your truth.

Commiserate with colleagues, your fellow educators.   If safe, share your struggle with administration.  If possible, advocate for change.

If nothing else, remember this:  

The essential priority in supporting a child’s social and emotional growth is safety – a felt sense of safety – in the home and school environment.  Despite what many SEL companies claim, creating safety and enhancing a student’s social and emotional growth is not best accomplished through explicit instruction and lesson plans.  It’s not something that can be scheduled once or twice a week for forty minutes.  In school, a felt sense of safety spontaneously emerges during authentic exchanges between individuals, in the context of caring and attuned relationships with physiologically regulated individuals.

Sounds too simple?

Let’s face it…we could all use a little simple right now.  That’s why Homer still makes us giggle.