Forum For Thought

Messages from Educators on Social and Emotional Learning

Carinne Deeds, AYPF Senior Policy Associate

This is part one of a three-part blog series about social and emotional learning. Click here for part two and part three

What do educators want policymakers to know or be able to do regarding social and emotional learning (SEL)? I asked three of them last week during a panel discussion on SEL at the NoVo Foundation and Education First’s SEL in Action convening in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico.

Educators often express the sentiment that ideas discussed in Washington and state capitols may not be reflective of what happens in the classroom. This is especially true with regards to SEL, as the term may be relatively new to policymakers and conversations are often filled with jargon. Although many organizations are making strides to unify and simplify SEL in the policy context, I admittedly do not often speak directly with educators about what the SEL field needs from their perspective. This convening was my opportunity, as I was surrounded by nearly 200 teachers, principals, and school administrators from around the country.

Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to report back on every conversation I had, I asked a panel of expert educators what they would like policymakers to know or be able to do regarding SEL. These are their responses:

“SEL should be culturally relevant.”

Kara Bobroff, Founder and Principal of the Native American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, noted the importance of culturally relevant practices to enable students to develop socially, emotionally, and academically. NACA, in conjunction with community members, developed “essential values” to ensure the school embraces the future while sustaining the identities, culture, and traditions of students and teachers. These essential values include personal wellness, cultural identity, and academic preparation – all of which are interrelated and rely on an awareness of different cultures.

Ms. Bobroff noted that this idea can and should be translated to other schools outside of the Native American community, particularly those focused on SEL, which is deeply tied to cultural norms and expectations. Plenary speaker Dena Simmons of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence later echoed this sentiment, noting that research supports the idea that social and emotional competencies (or emotional intelligence) cannot be developed in any community without culturally responsive practices.

“Visit schools to see what SEL really means.”

Jarred Amato, an English teacher at Maplewood High School in Nashville, Tennessee, was really speaking AYPF’s language. Mr. Amato explained that SEL is complex but important and can happen in a variety of different ways that policymakers can only truly understand through seeing or experiencing. His classroom is an English classroom, but each and every day is an opportunity for him to implicitly or explicitly cultivate social and emotional skills in his students. Fortunately, Metro Nashville Public Schools has prioritized SEL across the entire district, and Mr. Amato noted that the Office of Social and Emotional Learning at the district has helped integrate the theory of SEL into action in the classroom. The theory is nothing without the practice, and teachers like Mr. Amato are working daily to ensure that every student is equipped with the competencies they need to learn, succeed, and thrive.

To make the connection with policymakers easier, since not everyone can visit a classroom, Mr. Amato brings his classroom to policymakers (and others) through a personal blog focused on sharing his successes and challenges as a teacher. Whether through blogs like this one, or through interactive site visits to schools, policymakers’ understanding of SEL can greatly expand once they see first-hand the tangible impacts SEL has on the lives and outcomes of students.

“Listen to kids.”

Aaron Stern, Founder and President of the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explained that adults in charge should be more attuned to the needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings of young people. This might mean that youth voices should be represented in policy discussions or that policies should, in general, emphasize the importance of youth empowerment. This idea is central to the school’s mission to “encourage and cultivate the powers of critical thought, imagination, curiosity, innate sense of purpose, wonder, inspiration, and an ongoing awakening of the heart.” This mission is reflected in the culture, pedagogy, and discipline practices of the school, which empowers young people to take responsibility for their own learning and transformation.

Listening to youth is especially important for SEL, as autonomy and self-efficacy are important elements of self-expression. “[Kids] know where they’re heading, [adults] don’t,” Mr. Stern noted, explaining that the first step to understanding what youth need is to ask them. 

As noted by the conference’s keynote speaker, the NoVo Foundation’s Jennifer Buffett, all young people deserve to feel “safe, seen, and celebrated.” Policymakers and influencers have an important role to play in ensuring that our nation’s policies are supportive of culturally relevant, classroom-informed, youth-driven SEL.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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