Our children are called to order by the insistent bells of Education. Each morning we watch them go and hope. We hope they are engaged and motivated, that their teachers are invested and caring, that they don’t become involved with the “wrong” crowd. We hope apathy and disconnection don’t creep in. We hope we don’t lose them.
We hope because what else can we do.
What we know of our child’s school life comes from dry report cards, the briefest of parent/teacher conferences and grades and test scores continuously charting academic standing. All false indicators of well-being. But what we really know is that school is filled with as much risk as luck and a good education is not guaranteed anywhere.
There is something wrong, something missing, in schools today. Parents know it. Teachers know it. Obama knows it. But most significantly, our children know it.
School is a full-time, no-option-to-leave job that lasts 12 years – at least. Still, up to one-third of disgruntled students end up dropping out to solve the problem of non-workable school (and life) conditions. As adults, working for any length of time in a job that does not validate or feed you intellectually, emotionally or socially would be misery – the kind of job too many Americans suffer through because of their own school experiences.
When rethinking our present day educational system, let’s once and for all integrate the social and emotional aspects of learning alongside the cognitive work of development. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994), who coined the phrase “identity crisis,” offered that each developmental stage presents tasks that must be worked through before moving successfully on to the next stage of development. These tasks are social and emotional as well as cognitive.
The task of adolescence is identity formation, the often challenging, lifelong journey of crafting an identity.
What happens when the “who am I?” question of identity is neglected? Statistics tell us that one in five children suffer from mental, behavioral or emotional problems and that one in eight suffer from depression. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of people aged 15-24, and the fourth leading cause of death of children between the ages of 10-14.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) in school offers time, place and opportunity for students to do the work of identity formation. Students explore, discover and reflect on what it means to be them in relation to others. SEL builds interpersonal (awareness of other’s feelings) as well as intrapersonal (self-awareness) skills. SEL programs are springing up in limited ways in some schools around the country. These programs, mostly for grades K-6th, range from after-school social skills learning to morning circle to in-school curriculum-based learning.
Why are there little or no SEL programs in middle and high schools today when it clearly is instrumental to healthy, rounded development?
The impact of I.Q. testing on education, developed in the early 20th century is profound and reverberates through our entire educational system. We have designed a system of learning that is centered on the “logical/mathematical and linguistic” intelligences, a system that almost wholly disregards the social and emotional dimensions of creating a self. Measuring intelligence means schools teach to tests that measure measurable intelligence. It is a vicious cycle that excludes meeting and serving the “other” needs and intelligences of our students.
Scientifically measuring intelligence (I.Q. testing) was developed in response to managing and tracking a rapidly expanding nation. Intelligence testing became the standard way of managing and tracking our children, unfortunately at the exclusion of all else. It seems we no longer can see our children without it.
The goal of education should be to unlock potential, not to limit it. We have little choice but to trust our schools to care for our children. We hope good teachers will witness and cultivate their unique potential both academically and as developing human beings. But the sad reality is that schools are not set up to tend to the whole child and good attention to the social and emotional aspects of development is left to chance and luck.
As a result, the non-cognitive potential of our children, their feeling, creative, intuitive dimensions are rendered invisible in a system that sees them exclusively through the lens of quantitative assessments, tests and grades. Huge portions of our children’s selves are seemingly not worth validating because they are not measurable or track-able. Yet building a system that honors the whole thinking, feeling, and creative individuating person is the change we desperately need in American education.
When we honor and engage the whole child we promote real growth that leads to academic achievement and well-being. The most recent findings show that student attitudes, behaviors and performance are improved with SEL in the school setting because students who are connected to self and others are more engaged in their own learning. By neglecting the essential work children and adolescents are developmentally charged to do, we devalue their primal drive to know and make sense of themselves and their world. When we place SEL in equal partnership with cognitive learning, we can graduate creative, inspired individuals who reach beyond themselves into a world of their own possibility.
We need to help our children become – fully – themselves, not what we want them to be. To do that we need to integrate SEL into the daily life of Education so we no longer leave our childrens’ development to luck and chance but to careful, thoughtful attention.