Should you teach social and emotional skills to kids?
(CNN) – I remember my eighth-grade teacher, Sally Bashen, lighting up our young group of middle school girls.
We were amazed by how surprised the eighth-graders of London seemed to be by all the drama in their lives, and it was all put on stage that day. Everyone was a diva and hated being told what to do. It seemed obvious that we needed a program to help us become world-class celebrities. So that’s how Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) was born.
It all started with my mom, who was a strong supporter of school books and a strong advocate for SEL for her girls. She’d started studying the issue and saw SEL as a tool for success. She was concerned about their performance in grades and in college and their ability to be a positive influence on their younger sisters, so she made this a priority.
In 1998, Sally organized a SEL program for the girls in my elementary school at a cost of around $2,000. It was part of a curriculum that taught the girls about empathy, citizenship, confidence and mutual respect. We set down routines. We didn’t use one piece of age-specific information. The girls learned empathy by sharing if they disagreed with a classmate and remembering that everyone deserves to feel safe.
I remember what a blessing that program was to our school. Of course, it came at a cost, but we should all be grateful for that opportunity. It didn’t stop there, though, as the girls learned about the pitfalls of peer pressure and about how to negotiate that conflict rather than raise the roof or smashing windows.
SEL is big business now. Every school in America has a school psychologist, and we teach it to students in high school, college and professional development. The theory is that social and emotional well-being is a skill you learn if you practice it. If you don’t have the skills to be a self-disciplined adult, you will have difficulties succeeding in school or in life. When people can’t handle conflict and sit there in fear and embarrassment, they don’t thrive.
SEL can change lives. Studies have shown how important SEL is, and more than 60% of students told Kidsdata about how they improved their friendships through SEL. By contrast, 14% of parents said their kids hadn’t changed in a single year. More than half (51%) said they didn’t know their children had improved in any area.
It turns out, kids are learning to be more self-disciplined and understanding the value of fairness. They know who they can and can’t trust and when other people’s behavior is unfair. They are more likely to participate in meaningful conversations in class and in the cafeteria. And they feel more powerful in the classroom and in their community.
So if SEL is such a great idea, why aren’t there more teachers who are ready to teach it?
I got to thinking about this over the holidays. I had a movie screening in New York. Two ladies from Hollywood were there: Barbra Streisand and Natalie Portman. They sat in the front row, barely moving. They hardly noticed the movie. When the lights came up, people were still filing out of the theater. But the ladies were glued to their phones.
It took them three hours to scroll through an Instagram account with selfies from faraway places. They couldn’t afford to be bothered by a movie. They weren’t learning social and emotional skills. Even though they had the resources, the opportunities weren’t there. Social and emotional skills aren’t just important when your friends disappear. They’re important when you’re 21 and thinking about starting a family. They are important when you’re 50 and you don’t want to lose your skills because you’re too young to use them.
Do we want to teach self-discipline and communication skills or allow ourselves to be distracted by Instagram posts? Every parent should be thinking about that and wonder how to make SEL a priority. It’s not a luxury; it’s a right. And it’s much easier to have success in life and school if you can succeed because you have all of your tools.
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