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Democratic schools need social and emotional intelligence

4 min read


I wonder what John Dewey might feel on entering a New York City high school as the contents of his bag run through a metal detector. Sometimes it is very difficult to imagine democratic, globally-minded students in schools populated with security guards and scanners. I think about the social and emotional well being of children and what public schools mean for a democracy. How can schools become places that can honor curiosity and activate intellect? And what does it take to align instruction, academics and school organization with their interior lives?

All students in all schools deserve to be surrounded by adults who think and act ethically and with compassion. The life of democracy depends on it. The sooner schools tap into the natural inclinations, dispositions and aptitudes of students for goodness, service and beauty, the closer we will come to approximating democratic life in all its magnitude. But engaging kids in democratic pedagogy needs to be buttressed by a culture of regard where in-depth learning and respectful and empathetic interactions continuously happen.

Five years ago as a coach for a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program run by Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, I got to experience that first hand. Working with a program created through the University of Illinois’ affiliate called CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), I spent a year as a coach working in two New York City public high schools. Armed with curriculum and research–tested tools, my job was to mobilize an SEL committee of students, teachers and parents to launch a self–study on the social and emotional temperature of their schools.

At Midwood, a school of 4,500 with a robust academic culture, the results were impressive. Led by a guidance counselor and media teacher, a school–wide strategy to spread the school vision deploying technology was implemented, including LCD screens in the lobby and cafeteria and student–made digital public service announcements.

At the Wingate Campus in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, three new schools under one roof were beset by issues of territoriality and suspicion. Through the SEL program championed by the building vice principal, a student council was formed. The result was an upsurge in youth leadership with the council leading the way to eliminate the artificial barriers separating the schools. Their first collective act, after intramural basketball tournaments, was a resoundingly successful arts festival that was planned by art teachers from the three schools. This was something that was unheard of before.

A healthy democracy requires that kind of resiliency and vitality. All schools should be dynamic places grounded in the practices of democracy. But first they must care about the inner lives of their students and adults — emotionally, socially and cognitively but not one at the expense of the other.

Here are six things they can do.

  1. Pay more attention to the social context of schooling and less on the summative. We have reams of research to corroborate the absolute importance of relationships.
  2. Scaffold opportunities to be exposed to and experience direct contact with the world.
  3. Use art experiences to engage and activate social action projects.
  4. Become deliberate and articulate in naming the attributes and skills of social and emotional intelligence.
  5. Be thoughtful. Mirror mindfulness and reflection in one’s daily interactions. Have moments of silence during school days.
  6. Network with other schools involved in social and emotional learning projects.

There is a coffee shop in Sullivan County where at a counter a sign says: Be nice OR LEAVE. We ought to operate our schools according to such humane principles with less emphasis on data sets and more on healthy handshakes and eye contact. Schools where decency and respect are cardinal values are also places where people are known and make it a point to say goodbye to each other. In order for democracy to live in schools, they need to become more like coffee shops in small towns and less like factories.

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. Most recently he headed Stevens Cooperative School as an interim, and prior to that he was head of school at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona and head of studies at the American School Foundation in Mexico City.