THE PROBLEM & THE OPPORTUNITY
I’ll never forget the comment a principal made during a Zoom meeting last April. I was invited to sit in with the administrative team of a public high school as they explored ways to connect with students now that the short-term virtual status of school was looking like it might go on for a while. The problem was students weren’t showing up for virtual classes, and those who did were logging off a few minutes later. Here’s the direct quote I wrote in my notes:
“If we can’t connect with kids, they won’t show up and they won’t stay. If we don’t actually care for them, we won’t connect. We have to put caring for them in front of academics. Who they are and what they’re going through is more important than grades or test scores.”
Right next to that quote was a note for myself, in all caps and underlined three times:
“THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYING FOR YEARS!”
This isn’t a short e-book about me being right, this is a field kit to help school leaders get it right. Because, since that moment I’ve had hundreds of conversations with educators about the importance of social-emotional learning and putting the mental health and wellbeing of kids front and center and I don’t see many schools even come close to actually doing it.
You read that right. I’m not seeing many schools- even the ones who think they’re doing it well, actually put caring for kids in the forefront.
Although I sound harsh and overly critical, I don’t feel that way. I think what’s happened, from my perspective, is the result of a prolonged survival mode response to stress and crisis. Biologically, when someone feels a perceived threat, their thinking brain shuts down so it can focus on other systems. When an entire system like a school is under duress, it doesn’t have the capacity to think clearly, strategically, or through its highest values and priorities. It’s too late for that. It needs to preserve itself, its energy, and just get through it as unscathed as possible.
But now, we’re coming down from the crisis and the chronic stress and headed for a new season.
As hard as it is to imagine, this too IS passing, and just as much as school leaders are considering the close of this year, they’re also starting to imagine opening up next year- in person, five days a week.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is, I don’t think we’ve learned how to operate differently. I don’t see school leaders who’ve transformed what they value and prioritize. I don’t think there will be any changes next year; we will return to business as usual. And there are two problems with that:
Kids actually went through something and need unique support.
It wasn’t working before, anyway.
NOW IS THE TIME.
TRAUMA, CHRONIC STRESS, AND ISOLATION
No matter how you slice it or spin it, every kid went through something profound this year. Some felt it heavily, others plowed through it. Regardless of each kid’s individual response, collectively there’s been a shift. Stress isn’t bad for kids, from a psychological perspective. It’s what leads to growth. Isolation isn’t bad, either, it can lead to good reflection. But, when you add the chronic part- prolonged exposure to stress and isolation, adding to that nuanced layers of fear, insecurity, anger, and anxiety that we’ve all felt from multiple angles (elections, race issues, immigration complexities, economic recession, etc), and we’re talking about a generational mark that’s been made on students. History will be the judge for what kind of response and reaction we have, but it’s easy to assume there will be a drastic, negative response unless we work through the pain, anxiety, fear, and sadness instead of pushing it away.
Kids are resilient, generally. But at the same time most kids haven’t yet developed an awareness or a vocabulary for their complex inner lives. Many kids have developed mild to extreme disorders, social anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
All kids deserve the opportunity to be guided by mentally, emotionally strong and healthy adults to self-awareness, wellness, and true resilience.
So, we’re going to explore here a few guideposts for how this time, this unique time is a ripe opportunity to do things differently. To put kids first. To care for their mental, social, and emotional wellbeing.
FIRST, WHAT DO WE MEAN BY SEL?
The district my kids attend school in is a nationally known district for high achievement and outcomes. A lot of families move to live in our area just to send their kids to our local schools. I’ll never forget reading through a series of parent emails from the district late last summer as it was slowly revealed that in person school wouldn’t be an option for them in the fall. They were announcing a plan to care for the social-emotional health and wellness of our kids as they dealt with unexpected loss, isolation, and anxiety. I remember opening the email with a lot of expectation and tremendous curiosity- after all; I had been contacted previously by district leaders to explore what our program could offer in terms of curriculum, but never called back.
Here was the grand announcement, the big plan for the year: they were going to stay committed to offering ‘The Mindful Minute’ to students through the facilitation of the teachers. (To be fair, they also were reminding us of the availability of school counselors, should students take the steps to reach out to them.)
Yep. The district’s comprehensive plan for SEL was a minute. A minute of guided silence or meditation or a chance to take a breath.
Just to be clear, I think that’s a solid step, a constructive tool for every teacher and student. But come one, a minute?
That’s not SEL. I mean, it is, but offering a minute is a joke. Kids need more than a minute once a week in their advisory class. They deserve more than the availability of school counselors. That reminds me one time when a boss said, “My door is always open. If you need anything, just come and ask.” Guess what? I never asked. But I certainly needed a lot.
SEL is not a program. It’s not a curriculum, although curriculum can help. It’s not an assembly, or a week-long campaign. It’s not a parent workshop, or a PD training. It’s not a minute of mindful breathing.
SEL is the basis and foundation of learning and growth. Without SEL, less learning happens. Without SEL, kids don’t grow into the adults we hope they become.
SEL is, at its core, prompted and guided reflection and interaction. It’s dedicated time for students to reflect on their inner world, and an opportunity to externalize their reflection with peers and adults. It’s thinking, talking, and listening about how they’re processing and feeling their experiences.
SEL can happen anywhere- in advisory, in Language Arts, in PE, even in math and science classes. It can happen at home, and it can happen in school. It can happen in after-school activities and in sports.
CASEL is the closest organization we have for a standardized understanding of what SEL is. They’ve developed five big competencies or themes, tying directly to Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence. The big five themes of SEL are: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making. Underneath each theme is a nuanced definition and core skills to develop. Frankly, I think those are terrific themes and essential for anyone to grow up well. But, their attempt to standardize those competencies and create a framework of measurement and evaluation has made many educators stall or get paralyzed in the practical delivery of SEL.
They made it too academic, too heady, and too complicated.
SEL is thinking, talking, and listening. It starts with an adult who shares something personally meaningful to them and invites students to reflect on their own experiences and responses.
One of my best friends is a high school math teacher who is a next level SEL guru. He does SEL in his sleep. It started early in his career, when he would open the week by telling stories about what he did that prior weekend. He said it always made him feel uneasy, like a really good math teacher is supposed to go right into instruction and drills, but he had a theory that if the students felt personally connected with him, they would stay more engaged. Over the years, he leaned more heavily into his theory, and spent more classroom minutes each year devoted to sharing personal experiences with his students. More personal time, less instruction. And what he saw was students performing better each year.
Sure, he got better at instruction and classroom management. But he also enjoyed his work more and more each year. He felt more connected to his students, and more invested in their success- because he knew them. He felt more satisfied with his work and his career path, and he felt like he was making a meaningful difference in their lives not just making them better in math. That’s from the teacher’s perspective. I met one of his former students once. She said Mr. Wilkes was not only her favorite teacher, but a mentor to her, as well. He influenced where she went to college (she followed in his footsteps), and she always visited him when she went back home.
SEL isn’t a program or a curriculum.
It’s a vision for students to become whole, healthy human beings, ready for life. It’s an expression of an underlying belief that every kid deserves the opportunity to build a meaningful life for themselves, and a core value for nurturing and challenging kids to get on their right path. It’s a commitment by the district, site administrators, teacher leaders and every other adult on campus to put kids first, think of them as developing humans, and guide them into the most essential areas of reflection they will need to have the foundation for the rest of their lives.
IT STARTS WITH A FUNDAMENTAL BELIEF
What you believe about kids will determine how you treat them and the experience you design for them. If you believe social-emotional learning is something kids don’t need- maybe you think they get it at home or in their extracurricular activities, or it’s something that happens naturally as they grow up, then you probably won’t emphasize it. If you believe that genuine success is only academic or career oriented, you probably won’t think they need to develop personally, too. If you think you didn’t get any of that fluffy SEL stuff when you were a kid and you grew up fine, then you will probably repeat that. If you think SEL is a waste of time, not what you’re paid for, not in your contract, and not what real educators do, then you won’t do it.
But, if you believe that all kids have the potential to be successful, and if you believe that every kid deserves the opportunity to build a life that’s more than just career success but meaningful, too, and if you believe they won’t get there unless specifically guided by the adults in their lives, then...
IT’S DRIVEN BY A SHARED VISION
What you imagine as success will determine how you design the student experience. Imagining success with words and phrases like “lifelong learner” or “global citizens” probably won’t help you very much, though.
Rather, a really effective vision means that everyone on staff shares a similar HD (high definition) picture of what a graduate will look like, sound like, and be like in real life. We’ve utilized an exercise at many schools over the years to get everyone on staff thinking through those same categories. What will an ideal graduate say, think, and be able to do in their academic and everyday lives after they’ve had a great experience with you? That’s the question. If you can get everyone shaping the answer, and keep that exercise open throughout the year, you will begin to find a shared commitment to the behaviors and values that will drive toward those outcomes.
IT’S DELIVERED THROUGH CORE VALUES
Values are what you determine to be the most essential commitments in order to express your belief and achieve your vision. It’s not just throwaway words that consultants make up so they can print out posters and charge big bucks to the district. Well, actually, usually they are. But, they don’t have to be. Core values are the most important concepts to define so you can focus your efforts and materialize your behaviors.
When it comes to SEL (or school in general), there are two core values that are more important than any other: Challenge students with high expectations, and nurture them with care and support. Because we believe that every student can be successful and every student deserves an opportunity to build a meaningful life, and because we imagine students who say, think, and do these things, we will commit to challenging them with high expectations (rigorous instruction, high intensity to focus and engage), and we will nurture them along the way with care and support. You can’t really do one without the other, although most schools are top heavy on the high expectations.
What we’ve learned in the past year, though, when virtual schooling has caused a huge decrease in connectedness, high expectations without nurture leads to students who are disconnected and disengaged.
IT’S ADVANCED BY EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
As someone who’s been on the PD circuit, I’m no stranger to folded arms, stern looks, and contemptuous glances by veteran teachers who’ve been over-trained. They don’t (or won’t) listen to someone come in and try to tell them what to do, what to know, or how to think.
Effective professional development starts with relevance and context. It’s addressing an area of concern, need, or lack- as perceived by them. That takes some work to figure out. Quality training of adults assumes they already have many, if not all, of the answers. They don’t need to be lectured to or ‘taught’ in the traditional sense. They need to be guided to reflect, process, and discover the self-evident truths already around them.
Effective PD that builds SEL competencies is primarily a human experiment- in order for adults to guide students into SEL experiences, they need to first experience them themselves. That means, SEL PD has to be based on the same ingredients: reflection that involves thinking, talking, and listening about personal experiences. There are core skills to SEL, but nothing that’s rocket science, by any means: sharing personal stories, asking open-ended questions, prompting dialogue and discussion, validating and affirming, providing coaching and mentorship. Most teachers already do those things naturally, but like most things, they aren’t yet aware of their skills or conscious of how to deliberately put those skills into practice in an effective, comprehensive way towards SEL outcomes.
The best rule of thumb with SEL PD is to facilitate a highly interactive, engaging discussion with peer learning as the primary focus. I’d much rather hear what a colleague has to say than some expert from the outside. Case studies and role playing are low hanging fruit for translating content into practice that’s memorable and doable.
IT’S REINFORCED BY ACCOUNTABILITY
I’ve rarely been around a school leader who keeps their staff accountable to goals and initiatives. Typically, what’s said up front in an annual kick-start staff meeting lasts a few weeks at best. If you want to reinforce your commitment to SEL, it will require you to do three things:
Define success in terms of behaviors: nobody can make a student grow socially or emotionally. You can’t force someone to become self-aware, or to manage their lives better. You can teach a kid the definition of resilience, but it doesn’t mean they are. However, you can build a theory- if adults do x, y, and z, then we think a, b, and c will be more likely to happen. Those behaviors aren’t complicated. They include what’s already been mentioned plus a few more: greeting students warmly, sharing personally, carving out time for reflection and interaction, affirming when students share, etc.
Regular classroom visits: a school leader mentor of mine, Brad Lichtman, says you aren’t doing your job as an administrator if you aren’t regularly, consistently in the classroom observing teachers. His process was simple- work with his admin assistant to dedicate time for visits and then go. When he was visiting a classroom, he would sit with students and interact with them, gleaning from their perspective on the clarity of the lesson plan and outcomes for the day. He would be looking for certain behaviors that would reinforce his school’s commitment to challenge every student with high expectations and nurture them with care and support.
Debriefs with dialogue, grace and truth: there’s not much point to visiting a classroom if you don’t follow up with a debrief conversation. Rather than just share your opinion or coach a teacher up by giving advice, the best debriefs are interactive. Good admin know to ask questions first, to try to understand why a teacher goes about their lesson plans and instruction in the way they do, then look together at ways they’re already being effective, as well as ways to improve. When it comes to an SEL lens, it’s important to be looking for those behaviors that lead to better SEL outcomes and having a conversation around those.
IT’S NORMALIZED BY CELEBRATION
If you want to shape or change your culture, the quickest and most potent way is to change what you celebrate and affirm. Start sharing the positive stories- not the ones necessarily about students who are shining, although those are helpful. Share stories about teachers who are modeling the best behaviors that lead to SEL outcomes. Share stories when you observed a history teacher standing outside their door greeting every kid as they came in. Share stories of the science teacher who had students to a warm up writing prompt that asked them to reflect on ways they were proud of themselves for sticking with a tough assignment. Ask teachers to share stories about each other. Create an award or a prize each week at your staff meeting to celebrate someone who went above and beyond to care for a kid.
What you celebrate gets repeated. Eventually, the naysayers and curmudgeons will take notice, too, and you might even win their hearts. Or convince them to request a transfer.
IT’S ALIGNED BY CURRICULUM
You were waiting for this, weren’t you? A commercial for our curriculum. Well, here you go!
SEL curriculum is kind of a joke, typically. I remember going to a back-to-school night for one of my kids and seeing an SEL poster on the wall with the word RESILIENCE in bold font and a definition in cursive. The teacher mentioned several times how important the SEL curriculum is to our students, and how often it’s implemented. When I got home, I asked my kid about the poster and he automatically, in a robot voice said, “The definition of resilience is…” and then rolled his eyes. I was laughing, and he said she makes them memorize words like that and their definitions.
Do you think memorizing the word resilience makes a kid more resilient?
Most curriculum for SEL that I’ve seen is lame, transactional, and rote. Its teaching concepts with fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Maybe, maybe that works for elementary-age kids. But not for adolescents.
So what works?
Again, SEL is not a program or a curriculum. It needs to happen everywhere and in every subject. But, SEL isn’t everything. The most important conversations about SEL hover around CASEL’s five big themes: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.
We put together several versions of curriculum designed for teachers to implement in five-minute chunks or forty-five minute blocks. With little prep and simple to facilitate. The best teachers, though, hardly use our formal curriculum. They look at our lesson plans, watch a short video or listen to the explanation behind it, and then tweak it to make it fit their context, their style, and their unit focus.
The best and most effective SEL curriculum for middle and high school students focuses on questions to wrestle with. Questions like: what do you do when things get hard? What does a really good friend do? What’s most important to you and why? What makes you different from your friends? How do you learn best?
You’ll notice those questions are open-ended, personal, and evolving. SEL isn’t something you learn and then move on from, it’s life lessons that grow clearer over time. They’re conversations to have year after year because teenagers are unfolding in their identity, sense of purpose, and relationships every day. They’re dynamic reflection questions that are best answered by being prompted by an adult, and guided to reflect their thoughts in writing and out loud, with an opportunity to hear from others.
If we can be helpful in offering our curriculum to your school or district, we’d be happy to make that connection. If we can be helpful in guiding you through the steps outlined above, we’d be honored. But, way more important, is your willingness to continue to engage with what kids truly need right now to grow from and grow through the experiences they’ve had over the last year and change.
Now is the time to implement SEL for good.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).