Saturday, May 25, 2024

Who Really Needs SEL?

I like TC Weber's work because he manages to so adeptly fuse looking at policy and policy maker shenanigans with the more on-the-ground view of how students and parents experience schools.

There's much worth reading in his most recent post, but this is the line that really jumped out at me:
I continue to be amazed at the amount of money we sink into social and emotional learning while failing to implement those meaningful practices into adult interactions.

I've made my points about SEL before. I think attempts to formalize it and teach it in deliberate classroom instruction are a mistake. that at best they are just kind of silly and at worst result in entering a Human Decency Grade in a student's permanent record. At the same time, actual SEL is inseparable from the classroom. That's because young humans are always learning social-emotional stuff, always learning how to function like human beings in the world. Every adult in a child's life is modeling some sort of social and emotional behavior. Every "this teacher changed my life" story an SEL story.

Folks who want to somehow get SEL out of education and just go back to learnin' reading, writing and 'rithmetic are asking to eat chicken soup without any both, to be married without having another person involved. This is the empty view of education as some sort of content delivery system, a process by which facts are poured into a young human's brain, perhaps by the latest version of computerized algorithmic "education." 

Except here's the thing-- even that approach includes SEL, even if the SEL lesson delivered is "Your humanity doesn't matter" or "Life is strictly transactional" or "Only some peoples' feelings matter" or, in the case of your AI personalized computer program, "Some people are not worth bothering to have human interactions with."

So even folks like the "premiere pronatalists" who believe Certain People should have lots of kids, but who raise their own kids by hanging an iPad around two year old's neck and smacking a toddler in the face for bumping a table-- well, they certainly imbue their children with all sorts of SEL lessons. Will a school program overwrite the SEL lessons taught at home? 

Every school is chock full of SEL in the form of the school's culture and the teacher's classroom culture. This is a big reason that so many schools are absolutely wasting money on formal SEL programs. A nice little program teaching tolerance and kindness for thirty minutes a week cannot hope to make the slightest dent in a school where adults emphasize meanness-enforced compliance all day every day. 

If your administrators and teachers spend every day grinding down students to get them to fall in line and do as their told, that is your SEL program. Research shows that some schools and some states have huge disparities between Black and White students when it comes to suspensions for defiant, disruptive, or disorderly behavior; if you are one of those schools, that's your SEL program. My school, for a time, had obviously selective enforcement of dress code; whether an outfit was a violation or not depended on how good you looked in it. Don't think for a moment that our students didn't learn some social and emotional lessons from that. 

If you want students to learn grace and kindness, your faculty and staff and administration have to model grace and kindness (recognizing that grace and kindness can wear a wide variety of faces, and not all of them are warm and fuzzy). If you want students to develop socially and emotionally healthy interactions with each other, the adults in your school have to model socially and emotionally healthy interactions with each other (again recognizing that there are sooooo many ways to do that).

None of this requires sacrifice of time that could be devoted to content, because SEL is embedded in all the work of a school. It's not a what, but a how. 

Who really needs SEL? The adults in the building. If they aren't up to speed, all the "Character Strong" sessions in the world will not make a difference. Soft skills, human decency (whatever you think that looks like), kindness, grace, respect, integrity, honesty--these all run downhill in any organization, and in schools, students are at the bottom of the hill. It requires leadership and personal commitment. It's up to adults to be thoughtful and deliberate about what they send rolling down that hill. 

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