Social-Emotional Learning: Not Just for Kindergarten Anymore!

Lisa Hughes
Lisa Hughes carrying a chair with a skeleton

A few decades back, the book All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten was published by American minister and author Robert Fulghum. Love it or hate it, know it or not, this book emphasized that the basic tenets of life are laid down at the very beginning of one’s academic career in Kindergarten. Fulghum discussed sharing, being kind to one another, cleaning up after themselves, and living "a balanced life" of work, play, and learning (Wikipedia). 

The title of this book insinuates something: that, as adults, we have forgotten to acknowledge and value those tenets in our more complicated adult world. That Kindergarten is a utopian environment, never to be repeated once a person steps outside that environment and transitions into the hardened, academically ruthless world of first grade.

Well, luckily, the world of education has not sat back and passively allowed this mentality to take hold. Well, mostly. Of course, Common Core standards and standardized tests have kept classrooms mired in an analytical model, where teachers, students and parents value and foster in children what is both quantifiable and easily addressed through interventions and direct teaching. You know, the “hard skills” of spelling, math and reading comprehension.

And yet, the Universe at large does not agree. It’s pushing us and challenging us as humans right now, RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE! As I write this, a pandemic continues to rage and our government continues to transition, and whether or not my students can effectively recognize where and when to place commas in a series of words seems trite in comparison. 

The reality of remote/hybrid/distance learning has put us face to face with all the skills that are needed BEFORE we assess the academic hard skills like spelling, math and reading comprehension: we need to address “the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve... goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” (casel.org)

Wow. We had to establish this as a thing to be actively taught in schools? Being a good human?

Yes. “S.E.L” is an educational  buzzword, right up there with “differentiation” and “formative assessment.” It borders on jargon, because most people on the street would have no idea what those letters stand for if you were to ask them.

But, luckily, I teach at a school that has known the importance of emotional health and open, working relationships from its inception. The image here is my poster of the Sparhawk Credo that sits above my desk, and which is posted all over the school. For me, it is within reach in any classroom that I plan to teach in (any yellow-and white-striped tents included). The Credo is there to remind me and my students of what the Sparhawk educational philosophy is going to ask of all of us: to be willing and open to ideas, to support and care for each other, and to acknowledge our perceived individual weaknesses and our strengths. 

To me, the Credo is Louise Stilphen’s interpretation of what social-emotional learning can look like in real time, and how important it is to leave breathing room in the school day for the “soft skills”. Students need to practicem these skills regularly, whether it be in the primary grades of the joyful Woodsview building or the heady middle school hallways and beyond. I cannot express strongly enough how important self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (“The CASEL 5”) are in the school environment. After decades of study, the educational research confirms (and teachers, as well as parents, can safely trust that) “social and emotional competencies can be taught, modeled, and practiced and lead to positive student outcomes that are important for success in school and in life.” (casel.org)

I am a fortunate educator, in that I can reflect on this last year in teaching and see the immediate need for S.E.L. to be a regular part of my students’ daily lives. There are few things scarier to children than a constant disruption to their norms, and academic learning cannot happen unless basic survival and then psychological needs are met - Maslow told us this 70-odd years ago. 

So, parents, know this: at Sparhawk, we teachers know that we are not the main stage performers in your child’s life, and yet we still take our responsibility very seriously. We are here to support you and your young humans during this wildly unpredictable period of history. Starting in Pre-K/Kindergarten, but not definitely not ending it there either, but continuing on. Rome was not created in a day. Cultivating a child’s emotional intelligence takes more than one year.

And so, having shared my thinking with any of you interested readers, it’s back to the Credo and the smiling faces on my computer screen I go. But, my heart is full and my fingers are crossed. 2021 has officially begun, and boy, the Universe is not ready to let up on us Earthlings just yet. And yet, our children continue to build resilience and forge ahead in spite of all this, and for that I am eternally proud and hopeful.

Want more? Head over to https://casel.org/ and https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/ to read up on how to raise good humans with emotional intelligence coming out of their ears.