Another problem with SEL(“Social-Emotional-Learning”) programs is that they treat children as if they are social-emotional novices.
This is classic adult forgetfulness. Recent research (Alison Gopnik, and others) confirms that children are scientists, and better at it than most adults. By the time they walk into the classroom on the first day of first grade, they have been doing social-emotional research for over 50,000 hours. Furthermore, they have not bought into the cultural distinctions between social, emotional and rational.
One Small Example
Jasmine (grade six) and Aymani (grade 4) were sitting together editing each other’s papers. Shelby (grade six), who was sitting nearby overheard them wrestling with the problem of how to indicate to each other the things that needed fixing. She said, “There are signs you can use.”
Shelby went over to the shelves where the materials were kept, got a stack of 3 x 5 cards, went to an open table and began making a set of cards. Each card had its own editing symbol–“SP” for spelling, “/” for lower case, ?;. for punctuation marks, etc.– The other two girls joined her at the table and immediately started using them to edit each other’s work.
In the course of the rest of the day several other students got involved as they, too, needed the tools that Shelby had created. By the end of the day there were two new educational materials in the classroom that the students had collaboratively created–a stack of laminated 3 x 5 cards that would facilitate the communication between students as the they helped each other improve their writing, and a game for memorizing the symbols of editing.
When children are allowed to work together you can see this kind of behavior happening all day long. When teachers “teach” social-emotional learning, they are insulting the kids’ competence. Sure, kids still have a lot to learn about how to merge their needs, values and interests with those of others. Indeed, they will spend the rest of their lives at that project, but they are not starting from scratch.
Another Example (We could remember thousands.)
When my youngest daughter Katie was in fifth grade the students organized. At lunchtime, they noticed that they were sitting in different groups. Someone brought it up: “Hey, how come we are sitting in separate groups?”
“Yeah, what’s that all about?”
“Yeah, why don’t we all sit together?”
“Let’s form a club, let’s call it Kids Against Teachers.”
They were still talking about it as they came back into classroom. Noticing their enthusiasm for the subject, teacher Judy Stone listened to what they were saying and had the mental flexibility to see that it was social studies. She said: “O.K. What are you talking about?”
“We formed a club.”
“What does KAT stand for,” asked Judy.
One smart ten-year-old said, “Kids Are Talking.”
“Yeah, Kids Are Talking,” said two other students in quick succession with smiles and knowing looks at each other.
“Well,” said Judy, “One of the things we’re going to study this year is the U.S. Constitution. Would you like to write a constitution for your group?”
“Yes,” said several kids.
Judy broke them up into committees to work on different parts of the project: writing a mission statement, making a list of rules and agreements, deciding on what positions they needed in the organization, and so on. For the rest of the afternoon until Physical Education they worked on the design of their organization. Later in the week I saw handmade signs appearing all over the school, one conspicuously right outside my office.
When I asked Judy about it she told me what was happening. “K.A.T. stands for Kids Are Talking. They are writing a constitution. It’s really great. They have run into a snag. They already have a constitutional crisis. Their mission statement was ‘Include Everyone.’ Immediately, Kevin said, ‘What if I want to sit by myself? What if somebody doesn’t want to be included?’”
It wasn’t until years later, when I was talking to my daughter about it that I found out that the first name of the organization was: “Kids Against Teachers,” but that they changed the name when they realized they needed their teacher to approve of their idea.
Children need coaching in how to be themselves and to partner with others at the same time. They need their parents and teachers to provide structure and advice. They don’t need to be “taught.”