It’s Not Indoctrination to Help People Grow Through SEL
“Stop crying.” How often did some of us—many of us?—hear that as children? How many of us have said it to our own children? How many of us have heard—or said?—“stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about?”
Did all that parental effort to “toughen up” children really do what adults meant it to do? Or did it actually get in the way of our success, as children and as adults?
Brightbeam CEO Chris Stewart recently spoke with Dr. Akilah Reynolds, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles and a team member at The Black Girl Doctor, about how social-emotional learning (SEL) can change this picture and offer a different pathway to understanding and regulating our emotions. Their conversation got to the heart of what we know today about how parents, teachers and other adults can set kids up for success by understanding how to work with their feelings and the feelings of others to communicate and collaborate effectively.
Ed Post has edited this conversation for length and clarity.
Social-Emotional Learning Starts at Home and Builds Life Success
Chris: There’s been a ginned-up controversy about social-emotional learning. For people who see this pop up in the news and they don’t have a lot of context, how would you advise them to understand what social-emotional learning actually is?
Dr. Akilah: At its basic form, we take social and we take emotional. Those are the two very key components. It’s all about understanding how you're feeling and managing how you’re feeling in healthy and productive ways. It’s also to understand how other people are feeling and to work together with other people to collaborate.
Chris: Knowing the research, parents are generally good with everything you just described. But this percentage of parents is causing a lot of noise. They’re really calling this indoctrination. In your professional opinion, what might people be struggling with that they would think SEL was some sort of trick to indoctrinate their children into some wild and crazy ideology? I can’t imagine what it is.
Dr. Akilah: I think that’s a tough one. What I hear is that people are really just concerned for their children. They want to ensure that they're being taught helpful things. Concerned parents want to protect their children.
That being said, I think being clear about what SEL is and depoliticizing it [is necessary].
This is not really about politicians. This is not even necessarily about mental health. This is really just about supporting kids, understanding how they feel, and understanding how they're better able to make decisions.
Chris: When you think about that, these are lessons that start at home. What do you think are the positive applications at home that parents should be thinking about in terms of building up the social-emotional health of their children?
Dr. Akilah: At a basic level, just being able to be there for your child: to provide language for how they are feeling, to model how you yourself are dealing with your emotions. If your child falls and they have a little scrape, you might go to them. And you understand how they are feeling, because maybe they are upset, or they’re feeling sad, or they’re scared or hurt, and you provide them with emotional support.
These are basic things parents do every day that we might not understand as social-emotional learning. But they are the foundations for how people understand, again, how they're feeling, manage how they're feeling, make good decisions about how they're feeling. And how they relate well to other people, get along and collaborate with others.
Chris: Can you think about ways, if I was a young parent, or maybe I didn’t have the best example set in my life with my own parents, how we might get this wrong? Ways as a parent with new kids that we might not do well at this?
Dr. Akilah: That's fair. In the past, I would hear things like, “boys don’t cry, “ or “you don’t have nothing to cry about,” or “go cry” alone, by yourself. Those are the kinds of things I think many people do. Some parents may not understand or maybe that’s how they were brought up.
We don’t always understand how it could be affecting a child. In a way, it kind of teaches a person or a child to hide how they feel, or not express how they’re feeling or that feelings don’t really matter. That may not really be what the parent is hoping to communicate. Maybe they’re trying to make them strong, or maybe they’re trying to encourage them to overcome how they feel or to be resilient. That’s the way that perhaps they’ve learned or think is best.
Social-emotional learning, the key phrase that we’re using, is essentially just teaching your kid how to manage their emotions. Here’s a way to do that: by saying, “It’s OK that you feel how you feel. In fact, let’s talk about how you feel. Let’s understand how you feel. And then, what can you do with how you feel? How can you make a good decision around how you feel?
Being Tough Doesn’t Mean Not Feeling Your Emotions
Chris: I grew up in a time when people said, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” That was something I heard when I was growing up. What would you say to that generation of parents?
Dr. Akilah: I think that people do the best with what they have and the information they have at that time. What we've been learning over time and now is that, actually, allowing people to understand and express how they feel can be the thing that helps them to toughen up.
Being tough doesn’t mean that you don’t feel your emotions.
Here’s the thing: we all have emotions. Whether or not we acknowledge them, they are a part of what it means to be human. And, they affect us.
Sometimes, people might cope with their emotions in ways that are unhelpful. I’m not going to cry about it, but I might go throw this toy. Or I might, as an adult, use something that may not be helpful for me to cope with it.
I would submit that there are other ways to do exactly what you want: love your child and prepare them for a difficult world, honor their emotions and validate how they’re feeling.
Social-Emotional Learning Supports Success in School and Beyond
Chris: Do you think that helping young people validate their emotions, know how to self-regulate, that that directly translates to success in school?
Dr. Akilah: Absolutely. We’re actually seeing that. Kids who are better able to do that are doing better in school. Academically, they’re doing better. They’re making more friends. They’re making better decisions.
A part of decision-making is being able to take into account all the things. Your emotions are part of all the things that affect how you’re making a decision. But if you’re dysregulated–meaning if you’re overwhelmed by certain emotions–it can be hard to make a good decision.
Let me think of an example. Say a kid is frustrated in school because they don't understand the concept. If they haven't learned how to identify and manage how they're feeling and to relate to other people, well, instead of managing the frustration, they might throw something and get sort of sent out of class.
But instead, if you can work with your teacher or work with your parent and say, “How are you feeling right now? Let’s take a moment. What’s going on for you?” And notice that your heart rate is going up or you’re feeling a little queasy in your stomach because you’re a little anxious. But identify, “I feel frustrated because I don’t understand this math problem.”
Great. We can work with that. Then we can say, “Well, how can we deal with this frustration?” Maybe we can take a moment and walk away.
Or maybe I can explain it to you better if you’re saying to me, “I feel frustrated because I don’t understand this concept.” Then a teacher can say, “Oh, I know what’s going on with this student. Let me break it down for them.”
As opposed to, “They just threw a crayon, and I don’t know what’s wrong with them, so I’m just going to send them away.” I didn’t know that they were frustrated because I wasn’t explaining it well enough.
Chris: That's such a good example, too, because I think math is a place where the public commonly thinks, listen, math is just adding and subtracting and division. And it's just, you know, there's nothing emotional about it.
What you just said triggered for me, I can remember how I used to feel when I was encountering math. I knew for a fact that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t do it. I was feeling some things in that moment, like, this means I’m done. And this means I’m just incapable.
So if you would have approached me at the moment I was frustrated with my homework, I would have given you some feedback that would have had nothing to do with adding or subtracting or whatever. And now, as an adult, with kids still in the house, when they bring math problems to you, it’s so easy for that to get triggered again.
How can we get people to understand that learning and education are more than just operations, more than how you do a problem?
Dr. Akilah: I think that's a really great question.
Even as you're asking the question, you, as an adult, have a degree of self-awareness, which is the whole idea of social-emotional learning. You have awareness. You describe your thought process—that there are thoughts that ultimately lead you to make choices or decisions or engaging in behaviors.
If we're not aware of those things and don't stop and listen to ourselves, we might choose an action that actually gets us further away from our goals and what we want in life.
Being able to understand yourself and how you feel actually is in service of your overall learning and your overall life success.
I'm sure you've worked with people who are not always the easiest to work with. And that is a part of SEL, it's a part of collaborating with people. It is a part of making good decisions and building strong relationships.
Some Nuts and Bolts on SEL Learning and Partnership with Parents
Chris: So, what are some very specific, concrete things that are taught to kids when a school district says, hey, we’re going to invest in social-emotional learning?
Dr. Akilah: That kind of differs by district and by school. You’d have to ask specifically what your school is doing. There is a curriculum. These curriculums are by people who know a lot about the subject and provide teachers with some basic lessons on how to teach social-emotional learning. Just understanding what emotions are or identifying emotions. It might also include understanding what other people might be feeling and developing empathy for others. And then problem-solving. That sounds basic, but we don’t always recognize good ways to help us solve difficult problems. Problem-solving [and] decision making are extremely important for life success.
Some schools might even have their own systems where they can provide kids with support outside or inside the classroom when they need it–when they have big feelings. So they might take a moment to talk with someone and then be able to go back and do math.
Chris: I’ll ask you a question that feels a little bit complicated to me. I’m a parent. I’m going into my fourth decade as a parent. I have three kids in traditional public schools right now. It’s not my first time in the rodeo.
There’s a partnership that takes place–your student, you, and your teacher. If you’re in a good partnership, there are certain behaviors that need to take place for us [parents and teachers] to be able to help our children be the most successful they possibly can be. Do you see SEL as where we should start being more explicit about our partnership and how we regulate ourselves as parents?
Dr. Akihla: I think you bring up an important point: collaboration. Parents have an important role in teaching kids about social-emotional learning. They also spend an incredible amount of time at school and after school. So there should be a common thread in all of these places.
It’d be helpful for us to come together. Also, I think [it’s] a good model for working together with people who don’t always agree. You can have emotional reactions to things. You can experience it, address it, and still collaborate and work together for a common goal. Even if you disagree on some things.
These are skills that are important for you to be successful in life.
Chris: Were you always just naturally gifted in naming your emotions, understanding how all this works, or is this something you had to learn as a skill over time?
Dr. Akilah: I did not know about all of this. To be honest with you, when I was a kid, I was the kid that had emotions, but I didn’t really understand. I didn’t learn it in school. I didn’t learn it at home. I’d have to go cry alone and process my emotions alone. I decided–I’m going to pursue trying to understand feelings. So through all my schooling years that we talked about, I learned to understand emotions.
Now that I know a lot more about emotions, I feel more confident that no matter what happens, even if the situation is terrible, I will be able to navigate it. I will be able to cope. I will be able to create relationships. I will be able to collaborate with other people.
Being able to understand my emotions has helped me make better decisions. If I didn’t have all of this, I would kind of go off the deep end and let my emotions take over. It could have cost me jobs, cost me relationships, cost me money. So this really comes down to life skills for life success.