This isn’t going to be polished, because the process of thinking through issues of equity is messy. This isn’t going to be definitive, because no one has all the answers, least of all me. And it isn’t going to be confident, because writing about this feels very risky. But it is going to be authentic and, to the degree possible, self-aware.
Over the last year or so, names of people and places have come to inhabit our national consciousness in a way that some of us, mostly those of us who are white and privileged, have not necessarily had to confront before, not viscerally. Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland — the list sadly grows. Perpetrators and victims; allies and bystanders. And sometimes, heroes. And as we’ve struggled, individually and collectively, to process these events and what they mean for who we are, and how we live, and what kind of people we want to be, there has been the usual cacophony of fractured voices calling for reform: gun control, mental health services, jobs, social services, police reform, etc. All of these proposed solutions have merit, but to the degree that they are framed as single issue and partisan proposals, they often result in further fracturing within our society. Each of these solutions would require massive policy changes, which, in turn, would require dramatic shifts in public opinion.
Indeed, recent events have highlighted that while policy is a vital tool for systemic change, we also need to focus on making sure that we’re equipping people with the skills needed not just to survive, but to thrive. A subset of these factors, social-emotional competencies and mindsets, matter immensely for long-term outcomes, and they matter for all of us.
A Broader Definition of What Matters
In the area of social-emotional learning, there are several competencies (e.g. self-control, growth mindset, and social belonging) that research suggests are meaningful, measurable, and malleable (or teachable). In fact, measures of self-control predict long-term indicators of health, wealth, and well being as strongly, or more strongly, than measures of IQ do. Growth mindset and sense of belonging are two constructs that research has demonstrated matter immensely for success and for persevering in the face of challenges.
There is also emerging evidence that other skills like empathy, social perspective taking, collaboration, and critical thinking matter for success as well. While these skills don’t yet have the longitudinal research base that self-control has, they are widely accepted by parents, employers, and others as crucially important competencies for success in school, work, and life.
Collectively, social-emotional skills are of high interest to schools because they have the power to help students improve their grades and increase their persistence in college. But social-emotional learning isn’t just a tool to improve academic outcomes: it can also be a powerful tool to drive towards equity. It can be the common thread that ties together the complex factors that contribute to health, safety, and success. And, it’s not just a set of skills that students need: adults also need these skills to be healthy, engaged, and successful citizens, and also so that they can recognize when a colleague, student, or loved one needs help.
We have to recognize the resilience and grit that people use to survive in a system that doesn’t always value their skills and competencies; we have to make changes to that system so that people can thrive instead. As an entire society, we have to build empathy and social awareness. We have to increase access to resources and tools to promote social-emotional health and positive school and organizational climates. We have to build self-awareness and social perspective taking. Failure to do so will increase the number of places and names that are bywords for tragedy and injustice.
The systemic issues of injustice and racism and fear that we’re currently confronted with seem like an insurmountable problem. And we need to acknowledge that the solutions to these issues are also systemic. But systemic change is hard. So, for the most part, we choose a single issue, or discipline, or population to focus on: you handle mental health, someone take care of gang violence, and I’ll focus on graduation rates. Ultimately, though, we know that no one is really dealing with a single issue: kids who are struggling in school aren’t just poor, or just institutionally and systematically discriminated against, or hungry, or afraid, or learning disabled. The field talks about the whole child and the system and how it plays out in a million complex ways for kids, and adults, who belong to nested ecosystems of groups and identities. While we each chip away at the particular issue, or population, or disciplinary area where we have chosen to work, we ought to keep in mind that we do have a common toolkit from which to pull.
Social-emotional learning isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a way to unify the work we do together as we seek systemic change.
If you’d like some concrete ideas about how educators can help build resilience, empathy, and critical thinking to thrive in a complex world, here are some excellent blog posts. We hope you’ll share others as well: