Reading, writing, empathy: Schools try 'Social Emotional Learning'
Yale researcher Mark Brackett says helping students to develop empathy can make teachers more effective and students more successful.
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“One teacher used to go home with welts on her body because these kids were so emotionally challenged that they were kicking and hitting her,” Brackett says. “Since she’s been doing emotional literacy for two years, she’s had no incidents.”Skip to next paragraph
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Why the change?
“She told me that she developed a lot more empathy for her students when she grew to understand that emotions didn’t only exist when they exploded,” Brackett says, “Kids in these classrooms now have permission to say that they’re shifting in to the red quadrant of the mood meter, rather than exploding.”
The idea of emphasizing emotional learning began in 1994, when Goleman created the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Now the group serves as a central body for programs like Brackett’s across the country and the world.
CASEL president Roger Weissberg says that it takes “the three Ps” to make effective social and emotional learning a reality: policy, at both the state and federal level; principals’ buy-in; and professional development.
CASEL is teaming up with other leaders in the field to conduct a study of SEL standards in all 50 states.
Despite substantial data indicating that SEL raises test scores, there are naysayers, particularly as school systems struggle with tight budgets. In a recent interview on a local television station in Connecticut, a newscaster said to Brackett: “The kids can’t read, but now they’ll learn how to whine really well.”
He chuckled, but responded in all seriousness: “You have to think about what motivates students to want to learn. If you know how emotions drive attention, learning, memory, and decision making, you know that integrating [SEL] is going to enhance those areas.”
Interest in SEL spiked after Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge in September 2010 after being bullied by his roommate. Clementi’s death was one of at least a half-dozen suicides of gay teens around that time, prompting the creation of legislation, the hugely popular “It Gets Better,” campaign, and an uptick in interest and foundation funding to the nation’s various SEL programs.
But real change, Brackett says, will come from embracing SEL as a core part of the curriculum, not by parachuting into assemblies at schools trying to “solve bullying.”
“Emotional literacy should be taught from womb to tomb, because the emotional challenges we meet vary as a function of our age,” he says. “You’re not going to teach a kindergartener not to alienate people, but you might point out that little Mario looks lonely. In middle school, it’s appropriate to start talking about alienation.”
Brackett says his own experiences being bored and bullied in school contributed to his interest in emotional learning.
“I think back to being 12 years old, sitting in 7th grade, having kids push me, bang my fingers in the lockers, draw on me with a pen, and no one was doing anything about it,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to stand up for me, I just didn’t want it to happen. We have to make people more empathic.”
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