Social Emotional Learning: Should we be doing more?

Over the past month, I have represented School District No. 27 at a couple of different meetings that some might view as outside the scope of public education.

The first meeting was hosted by Williams Lake’s Violence Awareness & Prevention Committee. The meeting was held to discuss opportunities to collaborate within our community to more effectively address domestic violence.

There were at least ten to fifteen different organizations represented, ranging from the RCMP to Chiwid Transition House to social service organizations to us from the school district. Most of these organizations are primarily involved in dealing with domestic violence through intervention after the violence has already occurred. As I looked around the room, I realized that the school district might be the only organization represented that could be considered to be in the domestic violence prevention business. While we certainly deal with intervention when our students are either victims of domestic violence themselves or witnesses to domestic violence, I was also reminded that almost all future abusers also spend much of their formative years in our classrooms.

The second meeting in which I participated was the Blue Ribbon Panel on Crime Reduction Roundtable.  This meeting was chaired by MLA and criminologist Dr. Darryl Plecas, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Crime Reduction. Prior to his election as MLA for Abbotsford South, Dr. Plecas was the RCMP Research Chair and Director for the Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research at the University of the Fraser Valley, where he has worked for 34 years.

Dr. Plecas and his Blue Ribbon Panel were in Williams Lake to listen to leaders in the community respond to the following four questions:

1.  What are the crime issues in our community and how are they being tackled ?

2.  What is working well to reduce crime ?

3.  What are the challenges and opportunities ?

4.  What can we do to reduce crime further ?

Other presenters included Mayor Kerry Cook, RCMP Inspector Warren Brown, Community Safety Coordinator Dave Dickson, Esketemc Chief Fred Robbins, and City Manager of Social Development Anne Burrill.  It was an honour to be invited to present with such a strong team. 

An even bigger honour was to be included in the conversation in the first place.  While I prefer to talk about crime prevention over crime reduction, it may simply be wordplay.  Crime prevention may not have been what educators signed up for when they chose their careers, but if we believe that teaching and modeling civic responsibility and global citizenship are roles we play as educators, crime prevention is certainly a part of that equation.

To these ends, perhaps we need to continue to have more of a focus on social emotional learning (SEL) in education. 

What is social emotional learning?  Self-awareness, self-management, responsibile decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness make up the five domains of CASEL’s (Collaborative for Academic,
Social, and Emotional Learning) core competencies. 

Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies

Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies

Of course, these aren’t new topics for teachers.  For many years now, Positive Behaviour Support (previously known as Effective Behaviour Support in our district) has formalized the teaching of good behaviours within a school-wide system. 

For the last few years, most elementary schools in the Williams Lake area have also used a program called Positive Action

In 2010, Communities That Care implemented Positive Action in many of our elementary schools.  Positive Action is an evidence based program with a comprehensive system of components that works to increase positive behaviours and decrease negative behaviours.   The universal philosophy that you feel good about yourself when you do positive actions provides the foundation for all the components of the Positive Action program.

Positive Action’s primary goal is to enhance self-concept.  It’s designed to promote total wellness, competency, and healthy lifestyles in individuals.  Students develop personal potential, responsibility, understanding, social skills, and techniques for creative problem solving.  It’s about empowering students to understand for themselves howpositive-action-logo-larger they work and then teaching them the skills they need to create happy and successful lives and relationships.  The Positive Action “Word of the Week” is now used in daycares, pre-school programs, after school programs, and other community groups and businesses.  (If you’d like to know more about Positive Action, the “Word of the Week”, or Communites that Care, contact Carla Bullinger at (250) 267-8249 or by email at

In describing some of our school, district, and community programs, I don’t mean to imply that SEL is and was not already a regular part of many teachers’ classrooms.  In fact, SEL is so ingrained in our daily activites with students that many of us would likely underestimate the extent of its power.  However, I would make the argument that SEL sometimes takes a backseat to other curriculum content as students advance from Kindergarten through Grade 12.  Depending on the subject area, covering curriculum and exam preparation take precedence over discussions around learning in the social-emotional sphere.

There’s a lot of evidence to support that at the school level and a district level, we have more of a focus on social emotional learning in education than we have had in the past, but is that focus also being seen at the provincial level?  In some ways, that is a definite yes.  Through the ERASE training, teacher representatives and administrators have received excellent training over the last two years related to bullying prevention and threat assessment.  However, are we also seeing this same focus in the new curriculum?  We do know that the new curriculum takes into account that our students are living in the Information Age and that ingesting purely content should not be a top priority, but is SEL reflected in the new curriculum as it could or should be?  

In the Ministry of Education’s guide “Preventing Bullying & Ensuring Safe and Caring Communities”, the benefits of SEL are outlined well: 

“When students feel good, they are more likely to learn.  If they feel good about themselves, they are more likely to engage with others in school activities and events.  When schools focus on SEL and infuse it into the curriculum from kindergarten right up to graduation, academic achievement increases, incidents of bullying decrease, violence is reduced, attendance increases and better grades are achieved.  This supports the creation of an open school system , promotes community engagement and wellness and leads to students becoming well-adjusted, productive citizens.” (Page 18)

There may be some who read this who believe that social emotional learning should be the responsibilities of parents and families.  I would completely agree that in a perfect world, that would certainly be the case.  The fact is that we are not living in a perfect world.  In some cases, our students may be receiving very little guidance from their parents in these areas.  If so, educators who spend five to six hours a day with these students have the best opportunity to fill this gap.  After all, it takes a village to raise a child. 

Is this an unfair expectation for our schools?  Maybe, but if we don’t continue to fill this gap, who will?

I invite feedback and comments to any of my blog entries.  As the administrator of the blog, I approve all comments before they hit the public domain.  While I do not mind comments that disagree with my point of view, I will not post comments that I deem to be inappropriate, those which are personal attacks, or those which refer to specific personnel.  I also will not post comments from anonymous or nicknamed sources.  While one of my goals for this blog is open a dialogue, it needs to be a safe environment for everyone involved.  Thanks for considering this before making a comment. – Mark

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2 thoughts on “Social Emotional Learning: Should we be doing more?

  1. Dave Preeper

    Hi Mark.

    I believe you are on to something here. All one needs to do to see this lack of social and emotional IQ is look around social networking sites to see the evidence of peer pressure and the lack of acceptance children, youth and adults have for one another. It only stands to reason that if a child or youth is not seeing social success within his or her peer group it would create stress for them and the focus for the child or youth would then shift from learning academically to simply staying emotionally safe. School would most likely then change for them from an enjoyable positive experience to a emotional survival situation. If a child or youth is subject to this for a long enough period of time it would probably drain the energy from that child or youth and thus the child/youth would not have the energy to focus on school work. This could possibly lead to a search for acceptance by the youth within a peer group (any peer group)… attachment theory 101… which in turn may lead to losing the youth from the school system altogether. Parents are in many families are not finding the time for their children they once did and this is possibly only one piece of the problem. Many things may contribute to this such as financial stress, marital difficulties and substance use and abuse. Due to this many parents have acquired life challenges of their own which may have been inherited through their own difficult life experiences, this may also affect their ability to raise children effectively so in a sense, children’s lack of social learning could be considered a trans-generational effect. These issues have the potential to be acquired, reflected and externalized by many of our children at school and a snowball effect begins (Hurt Kids Hurt Kids). Unfortunately for our education professionals the school ground is where all these social challenges tend collide (in our junior society) and surface as low tolerance for acceptance, bullying and other types of negative behaviors. It would be easy to cast judgement at this point but judgement and finger pointing unfortunately does little to address the issue of our children being stressed. In the Risk Assessment work shop I attended I learned the importance of having a positive and empowering culture and climate in our schools and that this was one of the key factors in having a safe school. I strongly believe that an increase in social learning would lead to the creation of a stronger, positive culture and climate in our schools. Kids would probably fell safer emotionally and less stressed and may then have the ability to place more of their focus where it should be…on academic learning.

    Thanks for your time Mark

  2. I am an educator with 15 years experience working in the field of Social Emotional Learning teaching, training, coaching and consulting with schools. I have been involved in 2 large scale research projects on this subject both here in Canada and the US and began my teaching career in British Columbia and still maintain my BC teaching credentials.

    I am so pleased to read your blog on this topic and your astute assessment of the situation and the need in schools for this type of work. I would respectfully submit, however, that this is something that has been occurring implicitly in schools for as long as schools have existed – how to be a positive, contributing member of our society (and I am coming dangerously close to discussing aims in education here). I certainly agree that it is the job of the parents. But, once a child enters school age, they often spend more time with teachers than they do their own parents, more than 7000 hours by the time they have finished elementary school. Add to this the consideration of the changes in childhood that have occurred within the last several decades. Technology has given us more time on the computer, tablet and smart phone but less time with face-to-face interaction. There are more families with both parents working and less unstructured playtime with friends (where we learn important social skills) as well as many other factors that combine to impact our ability to teach these important life skills so crucial for success. The phrase “21st Century Skills” is a very popular phrase at the moment in education, and SEL skills are part of this skill set. Considering that we are teaching the whole child and not just the academic child, we must incorporate these strategies into our daily teaching practice. I feel the time has come (and has been coming for several years now) to teach these skills explicitly and intentionally.

    Social skills are skills that are taught. They are not innate within us. Many of the challenges that we are dealing with in our classrooms are a direct result of a lack of skill in self-control, problem solving, emotional understanding, social awareness and relationship issues. I know that when children are taught these skills in intentional ways it improves self-esteem, classroom environment, school environment, community environment and academic achievement by as much as 10% (addressing accountability and academic achievement issues). I am involved in a nation-wide study right now that looks at the question, “If we teach SEL skills in school, will that impact the community in a positive way?” with Canadian Mental Health. Preliminary results are looking quite positive (and this may be important for communities that struggle with crime, drug abuse etc). There huge benefits to teachers as well. When children can focus, manage their behaviour in pro-social ways, deal effectively with relationships and work together collaboratively, it decreases the volatility in the classroom – teachers don’t feel that they have to keep putting out fires. When we consider the number of highly qualified individuals leaving our profession due to teacher burn-out, we have to consider how a lack of student skill is impacting the profession of teaching.

    Having been involved in this area of education for so long, I must say how excited I am that there is so much movement towards intentionally teaching these skills in schools all across Canada. It is heartening to see and to be involved in the process. I am being asked more and more to provide session for teachers’ conventions across the country and the audiences are changing. In the past, I felt like I was trying to convince audiences for the need to teach SEL skills. Now, I spend the allotted time actually showing teachers how to teach the skills in practical, easy ways that work. Progress!

    Thank you for your fantastic blog! Canadian education needs forward thinking like this to address the needs of children in all our schools, because we are teaching the whole child. These children grow up and create our communities. We have to ask ourselves “What kind of a world do we want?”, and then teach to that.


    Anna-Lisa Mackey, MEd.

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