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"Hidden," no longer: Social-Emotional Learning and the curriculum

Preface: I wrote this post several weeks ago now, and between my initial writing and its publication, there was a mass shooting at the Tree of Life, a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Never is social-emotional learning’s need as apparent as when someone is dealing with trauma. Self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness (which is comprised of empathy, appreciating diversity, and respecting others, among others) cannot be thought of as add-ons to any curriculum. First and foremost, our world needs more humanity, a greater number of people who are humane with each other. So while I’ve decided not to edit the following post in light of this event, I cannot overstate the importance of SEL as a regular part of every school day. My one-year old constantly makes me think about being a teacher. I’ve always most enjoyed working with older students but seeing how he develops makes me revere early childhood educators in a completely new way. I understand how to coach someone toward crafting a thesis statement, but I have no idea how to teach him to use a fork. We’re trying to work on associating “mama” with me and “dada” with my husband (a surprisingly difficult task, though one that I can grasp), but how do I help him understand that my feelings are completely separate from his own? I was in this headspace when I picked up Educational Leadership’s October 2018 issue, which is all about social-emotional learning. “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions[1].” In my mind, this is the really hard stuff.

This isn’t to say that more traditionally intellectually rigorous concepts aren’t hard to teach; of course they are. Understanding the scientific process, how to analyze media, and how and when to use the quadratic equation are all complex pieces of learning that require skilled teachers to do well. But for far too long, the American education system has neglected these inter- and intrapersonal skills that allow individuals to understand the self and work harmoniously with others.

This feels like the shift that happens with reading. For the first several years of schooling, you learn to read. Then, usually around fourth grade, you read to learn. In a very short time span, you’re expected to no longer need instruction about how to read something since you were already taught those basics. But that doesn’t consider how complex reading tasks get, especially when they’re discipline-specific. Thankfully, the last decade has seen more of an emphasis on high school teachers being thought of both as content specialists and as teachers of reading. I liken SEL instruction to this because this kind of learning has long been the purview of early elementary school. Figuring out how to share, communicate a range of emotions, and problem-solve conflicts are all essential skills, but they get more complex as we get older, and our instruction in those areas stops. As adults in schools, we often become reactive, trying to help teenagers deal with difficult moments as they come up rather than proactively thinking about how to avoid those situations in the first place by helping teens deepen their understanding of SEL. It would be pretty hard as a high school teacher to downplay the importance of relationships in the lives of our students. Identity development is crucial in the middle and high school years and figuring out who you are in relation to other people is a big part of that. We shouldn’t be taking for granted the idea that our students can still appropriately apply the ideas of how to treat other people when an entirely new way of being with peers (most often through romantic relationships) is burgeoning. Social-emotional learning is powerful, and it shouldn’t stop once we leave elementary school. If you’re able to pick up a copy of the October issue of Educational Leadership, I’d encourage you to. Pedro Noguera talks about SEL’s link with equity, and Marc Brackett discusses emotion in school; both were compelling pieces for me. While my son might not yet be old enough to benefit from their resources, it’s comforting for me to know that a growing number of schools and districts across the country are diving into this area and helping our nation’s children understand self-regulation, social responsibility, and relationship-building. I’ll continue to do my part and teach him how to wave, but I’ll also look forward to the (hopefully) many years of support and guidance he’ll get from his future teachers, who have so much to offer him not just as a student of academia, but also as a human being striving to be kind and generous. [1] From: Note: CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, is a thought-leader in this space, and they offer a great variety of helpful tools on their website. Check them out at


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