Social-Emotional Learning and Civics: What are the Connections?

by Scott McGallagher, Democracy Program Research Intern

“Social-emotional learning is not frou-frou, it matters.” This impassioned statement from Desmond Blackburn, and many others like it from his colleagues, impressed upon their audience the importance of supporting social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools. Mr. Blackburn, the Chief Executive Officer of New Teacher Center (NTC) was a panelist, along with Dr. Elaine Allensworth the Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (hereafter the Consortium) and LaTanya McDade the Chief Education Officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), at the Forefront and W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation discussion of “Supporting Social, Emotional, & Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators” on Thursday, March 21st, 2019.

The essential question driving the discussion for the day was: how do we close the gap between “pockets” of SEL excellence and “systems” of SEL excellence? Dr. Allensworth early on established with her colleagues and the audience that student engagement—amongst their peers and with teachers—is the most imperative element of fostering emotional and social growth among young people. Behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement that the Consortium highlights draws connections to a “lived civics” framework of civics education that challenges students and teachers to create intentional and inclusive classrooms where all students’ knowledge, experiences, and voices are heard.

Civics curricula that is emotionally and socially responsive to the students who are growing from it should challenge students not only to learn more about their own identities, but about how they learn about the world and others around them. This central focus sets up students to be able to practice empathy in the classroom in how they relate their experiences to those of their other classmates.

In turn, students equipped with this skill can venture out into the world and have productive and respectful civic and political deliberations with those they encounter. At the heart of SEL is the bond between students and teachers, much like there is a bond in generational partnerships in civic spaces where community members share their knowledge and collaborate towards action.

One of the most profound takeaways from Dr. Allensworth’s research was that teachers who take the time to really get to know their students address interventions through alleviation rather than aggravation. This may sound simple, but surprisingly many of the panelists and educators in the audience said that this is unfortunately not the norm.

In a Civics classroom, fostering students who are emotionally and socially competent relies upon incorporating space for critically positioning the intersections of power, privilege, race, and lived experiences. As Mr. Blackburn referenced regularly throughout the event, resources should not just be allocated to develop students, but also teachers, as students cannot gain these critical perspectives without a teacher equipped to guide students through this journey. We must get to a point in classrooms—and not just in Civics classrooms—where all young peoples’ knowledge and experiences are valued and recognized for how they not only shape their lives, but when sharing their stories, shape how others view life from varying perspectives.

Some questions that circled around in my head at the conclusion of the presentation include the “how” of involving parents/guardians and other adults in these conversations, and how young people can engage in these practices with their parents/guardians at home. As well, I was left wondering when talking about establishing best practices of SEL across the curriculum, how are educators mindful of translating these practices to classrooms’ specific contexts?

Additional resources on SEL across the curriculum:

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (October 2018). Supporting Social, Emotional, & Academic Development: Research Implications for Educators.

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