Are we jumping to SEL?

Schools are moving to SEL to fix many issues. But is this the only answer?

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

Are we jumping to SEL?


“School, homework, church, green beans … School, homework, church, green beans … School, homework, church, green beans.” This is how Bruce Springsteen described his existence before the Sunday night in 1956 when he saw Elvis on TV.  Until that moment, he didn’t know that life could offer excitement, energy and joy. That preview of what life could be gave him the inspiration and determination to be a musician.

He also said he hated school, which, he added was a requirement for being a rock star. Anyone who wanted a life of energy, excitement or joy would not settle for the bleak type of learning found in most schools. 

The current embrace of social emotional learning is a welcome recognition of the lesson in Springsteen’s school experience  — an acknowledgement that something important is missing in our school. Well-intentioned policy makers wanting to fix the problem as soon as possible forget the importance of allowing educators to reflect upon their own experience as learners.

When asked to share their most positive learning experiences, a person would usually describe how certain key individuals touched his or her heart and mind. A teacher, coach, friend or family member’s enthusiasm and passion for a subject left a strong impression. That same role model was trustworthy and believed in this person’s strengths and capabilities even before they believed in them.

This first-hand knowledge reveals that authentic human learning is always deeply social and emotional.  One could argue that the term social emotional learning is a redundancy much like the phrasesaying funny comedy.

Students don’t want to experience a non-social, unemotional type of learning, but they have little choice in the matter. Sadly, in many schools, they are learning the wrong things about what learning really is.

The type of learning that students experience in schools can be described as a cycle of training, performing and evaluating that is stripped of social and emotional elements. Students are required to demonstrate orperform what they have learned in a way that meets the standards set by the people in authority who trained them in the first place.

This type of learning is a transactional experience: something done to get something or gain approval. No wonder so many schools must rely on extrinsic motivation when this version of learning is so cut and dry — or worse, boring and purposeless.

Trying to address what is missing in schools by adding a social emotional learning program to the curriculum would be another example of what Peter Drucker called “culture eating programs for breakfast.”  The culture of most schools conveys a pervasive but hidden message: learning is primarily an individualistic, cognitive experience that is imposed on students.

School, however, is a social and emotional environment. Students walk into a building that is swirling with emotions and full of complex, often confusing social interactions. Students know this reality. However, many of their teachers either seem oblivious to the social emotional element, or they actively try to suppress it, forgetting their own experiences as students.

The solution of adding a social emotional learning curriculum to our schools would be like teaching students to swim on dry land and then, when the lesson is over, throwing them into the deep end of a pool. The swim instructors then leave their students to sink or swim on their own.  Those who swim are the winners; those who don’t are constantly trying to keep their head above water.

To avoid this situation, I offer some other ways to address what’s missing before jumping to the solution of SEL programs:

  • Be passionate learners and advertise it to students. Demonstrating and sharing an active love of learning is the best lesson teachers can give their students; it’s one they don’t forget.
  • Invest time in talking about learning. Current research on how people learn and how the brain works is fascinating.  Educators and students can both become better learners by gaining insight into the learning process.
  • Embrace problems with curiosity, humility and confidence. Sometimes the need for order and predictability can convey to students that problems shouldn’t happen. Ironically, problems are rich opportunities for learning and are sources of creativity.
  • Tell learning stories to each other. Humans are wired to learn from stories because they typically engage the heart and mind.
  • Always learn together. Learning is not a competitive sport yet schools too often are competitive arenas. Students should learn how to learn from others.
  • Promote agency in all members of the school community. People learn more when they feel in charge of their own learning. Educators need to design environments where students are consistently given choice and voice.
  • Make it safe to play and learn. Psychological safety is the foundation for optimal learning.  Students need to feel like they belong and can make errors, offer ideas and even disagree with their teachers without fear of negative consequences.
  • Do not reinvent the wheel; look closely at cooperative learning, remembering it is not the same as group work. Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy that effectively integrates academic and social emotional learning. 
  • Adults must go first. When educators provide learning that engages their own hearts and minds, they will engage the hearts and minds of their students.

Acknowledging that something is missing in our schools is the first step in improving teaching and learning.  The good news is that educators should know what authentic and engaging learning is; the bad news is that many forget or,if they remember, are not allowed to provide it to their students.

Although it is tempting to address what’s missing in schools by jumping to the solution of social emotional programs and initiatives, a better investment would be to give educators time to examine their schools’ version of learning and then support them in redesigning the school environment to engage the hearts and minds of students, which is what real, holistic learning is all about.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of “Peaceful School Bus”, “No Place for Bullying”, “Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities” and the picture book “Okay Kevin.”


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