By: Dave Mochel
Think about this past week. Consider the challenges you faced and dealt with in your own life. What percentage of these challenges were resolved with academic knowledge? What percentage of these challenges were inner-personal or interpersonal? What percentage of these challenges needed social-emotional skills to be resolved? Keeping your last week in mind, consider the curriculum that students experience at your school. How much intentional direct instruction and structured practice in social-emotional skills do your students experience on a daily basis? How well would the curriculum at your school prepare students for the week you just had?
Humanity varies from school to school. After 23 years teaching in independent schools and ten years coaching and consulting with educators on well-being, it is clear to me that there is an incredible range of attention paid to humanity in schools. I often see confusion and conflict between curriculum and the needs of people.
High stakes testing, rigor, and college placement are often valued as a means to some mythical point on the horizon where everything will fall into place and students will then live a good life. Having been a lecturer at Standford, I can tell you that attendance at an exclusive university in no way guarantees a meaningful and fulfilling ever after.
Humanity matters. The research is clear -- social-emotional education benefits students over their entire lifetime. Physical, psychological, and sexual health, test scores, graduation rates, and even lifetime earnings are positively affected by social-emotional learning in schools.
Another bit of relevant research -- in the absence of durable, portable skills for negotiating life, students are left seeking validation outside of themselves. This approach contributes to anxiety, depression, narcissism, materialism, and helplessness.
It is important to create a warm, safe, supportive environment, but it is not enough. Students need to be equipped with the skills that will serve them after they have left your cocoon. We cannot predict the life that our students will face, but we can prepare them with a potent set of practices.
Here are some more questions to consider. Does your curriculum serve the human needs of your students, or do your students serve the curriculum?
Do you have a curriculum that students must survive to graduate, or does your curriculum leave students with portable and applicable skills that will help them identify what is important and what is needed, take purposeful action in the face of discomfort, and support and serve others even in the presence of disagreement?
Do you strive to be a school where all of your students go to the Ivy League and some have the skills they need for a fulfilling life, or do you strive to be a school where all students have the skills they need to thrive and some go to the Ivy League?
Self-regulation is the key. Self-regulation is the ability to take initiative and respond to life's challenges in a manner that is consistent with valued goals, commitments, and relationships, It requires an ability to work skillfully with emotions, to cultivate and access values and positive internal resources and to listen and communicate with kindness and clarity.
Self-regulation is a skill. It is a skill that is easily confused with motivation. When a student doesn't know how to work with discomfort or how to get started on a project when they are overwhelmed, it may look like motivation, but it is often a lack of self-regulation skills. When a student struggles to put small upsets, setbacks, or conflicts in perspective, self-regulation is the key. How are self-regulation skills explicitly taught at your school? Are students getting to the specific instruction and practice needed to develop the skills they will need to navigate a complex and unpredictable world?
Attentional self-regulation is the foundation. Fundamental to all forms of self-regulation are the abilities to choose where to focus attention and to notice when attention wanders. The skill of attentional self-regulation is critical to emotional, behavioral, and social self-regulation. For many of us, the most instruction we received in this critical skill was a teacher looking at us and saying "pay attention". This is equivalent to teaching math by saying "solve it".
How is the skill of attentional self-regulation taught at your school? How do students learn to notice when their attention has wandered? How do they learn to listen for deep understanding when someone is talking? What kinds of deliberate and explicit practices do they engage in on a daily basis?
Emotional self-regulation effects both behavior and relationships. Often what we feel like doing and our goals are in conflict. When humans are emotionally uncomfortable, we look for ways to escape -- we avoid responsibilities, we blame others, we become passive or aggressive. Working skillfully with what and who is around us requires us to work skillfully with what is going on inside us.
How do students at your school learn to work effectively with emotions? How do they practice identifying what they are feeling without automatically avoiding or indulging them? When and where are they taught to work skillfully with discomfort as part of living a full life?
Life is messy. Being human is wonderful and challenging. Life is not solved with the quadratic equation, by diagramming a sentence, or memorizing the state capitals. Of course these things have their place and their utility, but students are whole complicated human beings (just like their teachers), and they need social-emotional skills to live, work, and love well. This is why I think every educator needs to ask "how human is my school?"