If you want to teach your child how to make the world better, you must first teach them how to make themselves stronger.

By Megan Braden-Perry
October 07, 2020
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I was a public-school student in the ’90s and a public-school teacher in the 2010s—and the difference between how I was taught and how I learned to teach is striking. When I was a kid, teachers might label a disruptive kid “bad” and eject them from class. Now kids are taught to calm big emotions through social and emotional learning (SEL), an approach used in many U.S. schools. The thinking is simple: To raise kinder kids, we must teach them how to be kind to themselves. That starts with mastering your emotions.

James Comer, M.D., M.P.H., of Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, developed SEL in 1968; it’s now used widely. In elementary school, SEL can be taught in many ways: Kids might have a daily roundtable in which they compliment others on jobs well done. A teacher might hand out a worksheet with a blank jigsaw puzzle for kids to fill in, identifying the pieces of who they are—soccer player, sister, reader—to develop self-knowledge. In middle school, a class might create a plan for resolving any conflicts. These lessons touch on the “core competencies” SEL is designed to boost.

Self-awareness

This is the ability to grasp and express your emotions, goals, and values. Build this skill by helping an upset kid dig into what’s wrong. Are they cranky because they’re hungry and don’t realize it? Angry because they flunked a test and are down on themselves? Ask, “When did the feeling start? What happened just before?” Even if they can’t answer, orienting them in this way can pay off in self-reflective behaviors as they grow, says David LaViscount, Ph.D., principal of Audubon Charter School-Gentilly, in New Orleans, which uses SEL.

Self-management

A child with strong self-management is able to cope with stressors. Help them create an area where they go to calm down, often called a Peace Corner. Providing a space for the task of working to feel better can help kids focus on actually doing it.

Social Awareness

This is the capacity to both feel and show empathy. To increase it in your kid, discuss how people in life or on the screen are feeling, and what you’d say to help them feel better.

Relationship Skills

These help a kid communicate, listen, and collaborate. Boost them by showing your child their feelings matter. At night, ask what made them happy, sad, scared, or confused that day, and really listen and respond to what they tell you.

Responsible Decision Making

This is the ability to behave in a way that serves yourself and others. To foster this skill, model it: Let your child see you being deliberate in your decisions, taking care to weigh others’ needs as well as your own.

The results of SEL can be profound. According to the American Journal of Public Health, schools that use it have fewer suspensions, which correlate to being held back a grade, dropping out, or having run-ins with law enforcement. Black children are suspended or expelled three times as often as white children, putting them at greater risk.

Experts say reinforcing SEL at home is simply a matter of being a good parent: “Everything about helping a child to be the best version of themselves, to be able to understand life, understand what’s happening, is dependent on the kindness and love of parents,” says Denese Shervington, M.D., M.P.H., CEO of the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, a health organization. “When a child gets their needs met, when they’re nurtured, they internalize that as part of who they are.”

How to Get Your Child's School to Adopt SEL

First, approach the principal with data: SEL has been proven to raise math and reading scores, GPAs, attendance, and graduation rates. (Hard to argue with!) Next, head to the website of CASEL, a nonprofit that educates schools about SEL, where you’ll find info to help schools get started with SEL implementation, including a PowerPoint designed to convince the powers that be. (It’s on the “Tools and Resources” page.) When your school’s administration is ready to move forward, they’ll find even more assistance on the site, including an interactive online platform that explains how SEL can be put in place schoolwide, state-specific advice for making SEL fit into your state’s teaching guidelines, and even financial strategies for making SEL work in cash-strapped districts.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “The Resilience-Kindness Connection.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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