Social and Emotional Learning – Part II – Does It Fit the Current Educational Model?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is ubiquitous in the modern classroom. From early elementary students imagining themselves as an animal, creating an artistic representation of their new identity, and sharing it in class, to high school students writing an essay on the topic of what suffering can teach us and then debating their unique perspective with their peers, SEL lesson plans are regularly handed out to students of all ages.

While clearly a big part of the curriculum in most school districts, does SEL actually jive well with the current educational model of the United States?  The answer to that is a resounding no.

The current educational model is, in many ways, a relic of the past. Students are grouped based on age alone, not their current skill level or interests.  They learn in similar sized classrooms, that are often overcrowded. The current educational model encourages rote memorization and regurgitation.   So, students who can memorize perform well on the many standardized tests they’re required to take throughout their educational journeys.  Those who don’t, are often underestimated in their learning abilities and their knowledge.

Conversely, SEL postulates that real learning takes place as a result of observation and imitation, not memorization. It places great emphasis on helping each individual child become more self-aware, better prepared to advocate for themselves and teaches them important interpersonal skills they need for relationship-building purposes. But none of these skills are found on standardized tests.

SEL does teach critical thinking skills, particularly those associated with dealing with difficult situations, understanding how certain behaviors affect those around you, and how putting forth greater effort leads to better results.  This is something the memorization-type education does not teach. 

Critical thinking is taught within the scope of social and emotional intelligence.  This is important to note because many people argue that so much time is spent on SEL-related lesson plans.  They are concerned that students spend significantly less time learning and thinking critically about subjects like language arts, math, and science.  These are the subjects that the standardized tests focus on.   

Whatever the case, SEL does add to student learning and success because it helps students meet their emotional needs first.  This means they are more ready to learn.  It also focuses on their social skills, so they’re better students, friends and members of the community.

With so much trauma that students experience, either personally or in hearing media coverage on violence, SEL instruction is a much needed part of our education system.

Students from trauma backgrounds, especially those who come to school dirty, hungry, stressed, or tired, aren’t able to learn at their full potential until their basic needs are met. SEL helps administrators, teachers, staff, and students understand just how important having basic needs met is.   Without these needs being met, these students cannot appropriately pay attention in class and focus on learning. 

For SEL to be as effective as it should be, the current educational model needs to undergo changes.   These changes include, but are not limited to, smaller class sizes, more individualized attention, group students based on skill level not age.  Focusing less on standardized testing while reviewing all aspects of a student’s knowledge will advance the educational system and the success of students significantly.