Within the context of teaching, as well as parenting and child development, we hear a lot about Social Emotional Learning (SEL). At the core of this work is the understanding that “how one feels” significantly guides actions, behaviors, and ultimately, our ability to reach our full promise and potential. Specific to school and our students, SEL presents the foundation for learning and may support life-long success and fulfillment. 

As an educator for over 40  years, I have seen a wide range of initiatives, reforms, “best practices”, and mandates run their course.  Most fail for we tend to chase our tails after each new idea. However, Social Emotional Learning is the real deal for it presents the greatest lesson of all: Our ability to reach our full potential, to truly be who each of us is meant to be, is a extension of social emotional development with self-actualization or self-awareness at the core.  

Abraham Maslow, often associated with the preeminent Hierarchy of Needs, strikes a chord in this conversation when he stated, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”  And the foundation of his extraordinary work highlights the following: “It looks as if there were a single ultimate goal for mankind, a far goal toward which all persons strive. This is called variously by different authors self-actualization, self-realization, integration, psychological health, individuation, autonomy, creativity, productivity, but they all agree that this amounts to realizing the potentialities of the person, that is to say, becoming fully human, everything that person can be.”

Most notably, at the core of Social Emotional Learning is the notion of “becoming fully human”; striving toward our full potential as individuals, but more so, within the collective conscious of humanity.  

Related to teaching and learning, SEL practices and strategies are everywhere and schools are jumping on the bandwagon toward implementation of a wide range of “research based” programs and related curriculum. Literally, federal, state, and local boards have dedicated billions of dollars toward the development and implementation of Social Emotional Learning programs through the American Rescue Plan of 2021 as well as other major funding initiatives.  CASEL, the leading organization in support of SEL development, highlights the following policy statement: “Decades of research have demonstrated the effectiveness of SEL for supporting students’ academics, behaviors, mental health, and long-term success. To be most impactful, states, districts, and schools should implement SEL systemically across practices and policies such as curriculum and instruction, extracurricular activities, discipline, student support services, professional learning, and ongoing assessment for continuous improvement. Below are three areas where investments of ARP dollars could most effectively bolster systemic implementation of SEL: 1) promote SEL for students, 2) support adult SEL competencies and capacity-building, and 3) align SEL efforts across schools, families, and communities.”

This understanding is similar to what we have heard for years within the context of parenting: We often read about “self esteem” and as parents, many of us do everything in our power to assure our children feel good about themselves as each evolves toward adulthood.  However, this often fails to play out as intended for “self-esteem” is not something that develops from an external source of praise and affirmation alone: When our children fully grasp their purpose within, establish meaning toward their accomplishments and life’s challenges, and face struggle through resilience and fortitude, then, we see something that resembles “self-esteem”.

As a parent of the 90’s, where this philosophy seemed to spread like wildfire; I can honestly state the positive influence I may have had on my own son was not in the superficial affirmations or empty “atta-boys that I may have showered on him; it was more in the example I set myself or when I was present when he faced his own challenges.  Though looking back, I could have done a much better myself in either case. 

 An absurd – over-reaching interpretation of the “self-esteem building” parenting style often highlights the need for every child to earn a “participation trophy” without any sense of meeting standards or attaining levels of accomplishment.  And I am concerned that the same thing could happen within the current Social Emotional Learning movement: It would be tragic if we focus on the superficial elements of SEL and put these “best practices” on a checklist of a larger to-do list. 

Nevertheless, I am not here to debate the merits or prospects of social emotional development or the need for self-esteem.  I am writing here about what CASEL calls “support adult SEL competencies”.  This often gets lost within a movement or initiative of such undertaking.  Simply stated: SEL is not all about a curriculum or the implementation of a set of “best practices” like Second Step.  It’s more about creating systemic changes but doing so within each individual within the school system including every adult working within the educational setting. 

Most notably, it’s imperative that we begin this process by acknowledging the importance of the social emotional learning experience unfolding for those in influential positions such as teachers, principals, classified staff, and others working directly with our children.  Albert Bandura, one of the leading founders of Cognitive Theory development in the 1960’s, addressed this as follows: His Social Learning Theory (SLT) approach recognized reinforcement and the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating the emotional reactions, attitudes, and behaviors of others in learning.  This is most evident as we see social language skill development of two and three year old children; who are watching others, primarily, the adults within their environment for cues and examples.  According to recent studies on SLT by Nabavi (2012), we learn from interacting with others in a social context. We observe, assimilate, and imitate others’ behavior when witnessing positive or rewarding experiences.  This is true for two year olds as well as teenagers.

The impact of SEL through the Social Learning Theory lens is critical within the development of school culture, more so, than implementing a Second Step* curriculum or other SEL programs alone.  Years ago, this was stated as “Do what I say, not what I do”.  And since then, we have learned how important it is to align our behaviors with our words.  Such that, it’s essential that we honor and dedicate ourselves to the importance of taking time to work on SEL development (competencies) ourselves BEFORE we start working on our children (or students). 

Most notably, systemic and sustainable SEL practices and development for our students is an extension of how the adults within the schools feel about themselves first and foremost.

Simply put: Our perception of others is primarily based upon how we see and feel about ourselves.  This is fundamentally the foundation of this valuable work.  It’s essential for the adults within a school to emit, project, and model a genuine sense of self-awareness, self-appreciation, and authenticity for our students learn by example more so than any other form of instruction; especially when we consider the impact of the Social Learning Theory.  Think of it this way:  If I am a teacher of 30 students, the lens by which I see my students is based upon the same lens how I see myself. So if we are truly expecting our children or our students to make huge turn-arounds related to behavior, achievement, or self-regulation, we must make changes first ourselves.  For our students are observing and taking notice of our behavior:  “Do as I do and what I say”.  As stated at the top, SEL is an inside job!

Dr Julia Woods. a world re-known professor on communication and organizational development, outlines the following factors affecting perception within her best -seller Communication Mosaics: An Introduction to the Field of Communication:

“How one perceives the world is a combination of factors, such as self-esteem, self-concept, and learned values. Wood notes that “our perceptions are shaped by who we are and what experiences we have had. Thus, interpersonal perceptions reflect both what is inside of us and what is outside of us.”

Though we often state the contrary, perceptions are not based upon truth: They are guided and influenced by how we feel about ourselves, our experiences, and the internal stories we tell over and over.  

Within clinical psychology this understanding is often attributed to what is called “The power of projection”.  In Psychology Today, this process is stated as follows: “People tend to project because they have a trait or desire that is too difficult to acknowledge. Rather than confronting it, they cast it away and onto someone else. This functions to preserve their self-esteem, making difficult emotions more tolerable. It’s easier to attack or witness wrongdoing in another person than confront that possibility in one’s own behavior. How a person acts toward the target of projection might reflect how they really feel about themselves.”  Within a school or classroom, there may be students who reflect the worst of ourselves and as a result, they may feel singled out or identified as “trouble-makers”. 

This also can play out in reverse; often people project positive attributes toward others as follows: Psychologically, the process is exactly the same, the only difference being that instead of negative attributes, positive characteristics  are highlighted and another person may be placed on a pedestal, idolized, or regarded as having the inability to do any wrong-doing. Here again, we may find this process within a school setting; often associated with the most charismatic, successful, and award winning students.  

This is most critical as we move toward conversations about “equity” and forward thinking.  Is it fair to state that we truly have blind spots within our perceptions, and often the perceptions of others is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves?  I believe so.  It’s too superficial to make the case about equity and acceptance of others without introspection into the Social Learning Theory and the research conducted by Dr. Woods.  From my lens, critical race issues, discussions about equity, and other conversations about acceptance, requires us all to go deeper inward and take an authentic look at how we see ourselves.  Dr Brene Brown addresses this type of thinking within her work related to vulnerability, kindness, and compassion. 

So what’s the point? 

Within the context of “doing”; a never ending process moving from one educational reform to another; Social Emotional Learning will only truly succeed if and when the adults see their own growth as the foundation for this work.  SEL is not another “curriculum” to implement, nor is it a gap to fill within the instructional day:  It’s a never-ending process toward self-awareness and authenticity by students and the adults within the school.  And I can say, as I move deeper into senior status, there is no true destination on this path; it’s all about working toward being the best version of ourselves everyday.  One step at a time.  One never really feels “done” on the road toward self-actualization. 

I will close on the following quotes: 

“All of life is education and everybody is a teacher and everybody is forever a pupil.” – Abraham Maslow

“To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.” – Brené Brown