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Another Problem with Most SEL - THE GENIUS IN CHILDREN

Another Problem with Most SEL

by Rick on February 10, 2019

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.”

“Yeah, KAT.”

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?”

The development of character is not simply doing the right thing nor is it “doing your own thing” and being “a character.” We develop our character as we actively engage in conflict with other characters.“We formed a club.”

“Yeah, KAT.”

“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.”





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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Gruber February 11, 2019 at 7:12 am

Rick, I have to “assume” you are familiar with Ken Robinson’s illustrated lecture and his story of the paper clip. If not, herewith for your and others’ enjoyment:
Sir Ken’s point and yours are basically that we adults tend to suppress the genius in children and have most of it squeezed out by the time they enter high school. We want them to be compliant little automatons and not disrupt our good work. Such a farce!

Susan Porter February 11, 2019 at 10:53 am

I think you are saying, “Treat others as if they know what they are doing.” One of my all time favorite Ackerlyisms.

Ray Erickson February 11, 2019 at 10:59 am


I loved this article and it made me think of the challenge adults have to get out of the way of our children’s learning. As Mark Twain said, “I never let schooling get in the way of my education.” or something like that. I have long held the belief that children are the guides and we are the students.

jon madian February 17, 2019 at 6:20 pm

It seems we either get or don’t get being present to support the unfolding of character. If we focus on “teaching” or “telling”, whether it’s our children, mates, or whomever, rather than being curious and witnessing, then we let our own egos, our own need to know, to control or to be important, to get in the way of the natural discovery and expression of insight, sensitivity, and an appreciation for the complexity of human unfolding (“unmolding”). SEL is, of course, more about creating a culture of care, of respect, than a top down teaching and telling context.

Rick February 18, 2019 at 10:30 am

Gary. Yes! And Sir Ken is required viewing for all.
Susan, Yes, and the more I work with people of all ages the more I learn: it is really true: there is a part of us that actually does know what we are doing.
Ray. Yes, education is a reciprocal relationship—not one way.
Jon, Yes. Learning how to support the unfolding of character in those we love is a lifelong educational project for the growth of our own character.

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