There are five elements of social-emotional learning, according to The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. They are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship skills
  5. Responsible decision-making

This is the second of two articles to explore this dynamic. The first one looked at the responsibility of the teacher to act with keen social emotional skills. The second now looks at why it matters from the student’s point of view.

In The Hurried Child by David Elkind (2001), Elkind quotes a teenager as follows: “Growing up here, you are handed everything on a platter, but something else is missing. The one thing parents don’t give is love, understanding, and acceptance of you as a person” (p. 18). This fits in with other research showing the importance of the emotional link between parents and their children.

The Harvard Family Research Project (2007) provides as one of its examples the connection between family social-emotional strength and academic achievement: “In one study of low-income students, the degree to which mothers emotionally enabled and encouraged autonomous decision making in everyday conversations with their 11-year-old children predicted whether children dropped out or completed high school and enrolled in college 7 years later.” There are many more.

It is realistic to recognize a similar, if weaker, link in the connection between children (of all ages) and their teachers. We know that teacher stress can predict cortisol rates in children. We know that students routinely talk about the impact that caring teachers have on their own potential for success. As children interviewed in Listening to Urban Kids (2001) said about teachers they valued and the classrooms in which they learned: “The teachers really care for you. They make sure you get a full understanding. They keep asking, Do you get it? Do you want me to do it again?” (p. 107).

Children’s connection with parents and teachers demonstrates the importance of their own social-emotional health. Their own interactions are equally important. A Pew Research release in February 2019 stated that “most US teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers”. Fully 70% see it as a major problem with another 26% seeing it as a minor problem i.e. only 4% see it as no problem at all. What makes this even more interesting is that top of their list of problems is getting good grades (61%) – their social-emotional state is significantly impacted by their school experience. Compare this with the tiny numbers who say they feel pressure to use drugs (4%) or alcohol (6%) even as they acknowledge it as a major problem (51% and 45% respectively).

What might this suggest about the five elements of social-emotional maturity? Some of it looks remarkable similar to that of adults but often with a nuance. Suggest to them the following:

The Individual

  • Be well: the more physically well you are, the better you are able to manage the daily stresses of learning, growing up, negotiating human change. So…
    • Get 8 hours of sleep a night – this is the number one mistake that students make is to underestimate the importance of that time asleep in order to increase efficacy and efficiency during waking hours. In sleep, the body restores itself, the mind organizes itself, and knotty issues are often resolved. It is arguably the #1 way to keep your life joyful.
    • Drink and eat wisely. Not only do we go around sleep-deprived, we often go around water deprived and compensate by eating unwisely.
    • Exercise consistently – whether it is going to the gym or walking up stairs instead of taking the elevator or gardening, anything that keeps the body active is going to promote wellness
  • Practice gratitude: this might sound odd but we are more self-centered as a society than ever and that affects all of us. It’s interesting that university websites giving advice to their students include this idea of being grateful for what you have. It provides a sense of value (people have given to me), a sense of humility (I have needs that others can fill), and a sense of community (we are in this together). Saying thank you means we have actually recognized that we are part of a community, even if it to a random stranger who has helped us in the grocery store. There is so much fear in the headlines today, it is comforting to know that we actually do try to do good for each other. (The Psychology of Gratitude)
  • Celebrate: traditions, ceremonies, celebrations, anniversaries, religious festivals all give us a sense of groundedness. They remind us that we are part of a larger context, that we can ‘party’ without guilt, remember with joy as well as tears, and show us where we fit in the universe. They mark the passing of time and the amazement of achievement. They break up the daily routine with constant connection to family, friends, our nation, our faith, reminding us of the importance of being rooted so that we can go on new trails without fear. As Rabbi Freeman says: all that we do, we must do with simcha, with celebration, or we are just another cold, greasy, osso bucco.

The Student Within the Context of School

  • Help them seek balance. We need to help our children find some kind of balance. Of course, they are enthusiastic and throw themselves into a whirlwind of activity. That’s good and to be supported. But a whirlwind of activity that is adult generated in terms of unrealistic expectations is destined to create a sense of unworthiness as the person identifies with the activity, the doing, and fails to gain a true sense of worth. In our schools, it is typically seen in the mix of academic prowess, extra-curricular involvement, homework expectations, community service requirements that overwhelms leading to lack of sleep, moral relativism, a feeling of aloneness, façade and shallowness.
  • Help them recognize the spirituality within them. “Adolescents are profoundly spiritual, they are experiencing spiritual stirrings as the momentous and the wondrous, and they are surprised that, for the most part, nobody has talked to them about this experience” (The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller 2015). This is natural i.e. biological as it also mediated by family, peers, and religious organizations. It is associated with a 15%-20% decreased risk for depression and substance abuse. However you do that within your own school context, it cannot be ignored.
  • Welcome the idealism of adolescents and children. As they develop socially and emotionally, they need a safe space to explore with each other and with the adults around them. Our cynicism and awareness of failure should not tinge our relationships with our students. “We sometimes laugh at so-called idealists because is we truly engaged what they were envisioning, we’d have to consider changing what we think and do. In some ways, it’s braver to be an idealist than to submit to whatever reality is being presented, but we don’t welcome that kind of bravery as much as we maybe should” (p. 156, Make Me: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School by Eric Toshalis 2015).
  • Recognize that their development is slower than our generation, whatever generation we might be. They have more knowledge, more access to knowledge, more sophisticated awareness than maybe any generation before them. At the same time, they are approaching life very differently: “fewer young adults are having sex, fewer are in committed relationships, and fewer prioritize marriage and family” (p. 226 iGen: Why Today’s Super Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood by Jean Twenge 2017).

Of course, there are other aspects of social emotional wellness that are dealt with in many sources. This article attempts to move beyond the readily available to some deep and yet not necessarily well know ways in which we can think about social-emotional wellness. We encourage you to read and study and practice as you advise and mentor the children in your care.