Student voices: social and emotional learning can create a culture of understanding in schools

Editor’s note: This essay is part of the Seattle Times’ Student Voices program for young writers. Meet the authors and read other 2022 essays at st.news/studentvoices2022.

For most of my life, I believed that difficulties were something to hide.

Living in a poor family, I grew up in a moldy house with rotting wood, infested with rats and insects. Money came and went, but over the years it only seemed to do the latter. My family lived on food stamps and poverty wages, never knowing how long they would last. I was 5 years old when my brothers were placed in foster care, 7 years old when my father lost his job. Three years later, our house was seized; we were expelled. I was 10 when my family was three days away from the street.

My sense of worth and safety crumbled as my home environment crumbled. With no caring family to rely on, I felt isolated, unsupported and scared. With no one to confide in and no space to express vulnerability, school only cemented my feelings. From an early age, I felt compelled to maintain a trying front of normalcy in school as I silently withered from within. Since the vulnerability was barely revealed by others, I thought it was forbidden.

If my schools had successfully implemented a social and emotional learning program, I would have learned valuable skills in processing my emotions and felt encouraged to seek help in a more compassionate environment. SEL teaches students how to manage their emotions, set goals, build healthy relationships, and make decisions to prepare them for success in school and in life.

Unfortunately, my school did not offer this program.

Five days a week, I was immersed in a class of students and educators who didn’t know what poverty entailed or how mental illnesses, like depression, affected children. Although I experienced both, I lacked the vocabulary and understanding of my dire situation to learn how to cope.

Once, in third grade, shortly after my father lost his job, family tensions became unbearable. Our television and internet had been cut off, and my siblings and I had spent our days cooped up inside. I would nap all day to pass the time, finding little joy in the hobbies I loved. In addition to food stamps, we relied on our local food bank for many of our meals. Often receiving rancid foods, we selected their edible parts.

Driven by a sense of inadequacy, I lost engagement in class activities and started talking to my second-grade teacher. I still remember the first time I deviated from my complacent attitude and made a sarcastic remark during his instruction. After class, she pulled me aside to speak in an unempathetic tone that, to this day, sends shivers down my spine: “Your behavior today was rude and disrespectful.” After scolding me, she left without asking why I had acted as I had done, revealing no trace of concern.

Later that year, similar cases brought me to the school counselor’s office where adults tried to tell me how I felt with picture books and feeling charts that oversimplified the complexity of my experiences.

I was never simply asked if I was okay. I never felt safe to honestly voice my concerns or ask for the support I needed. Over time, I closed myself off, attending class dispassionately and holding my misery from within. Throughout my childhood, school treated me like a problem. It never helped me find a solution.

When students enter educational institutions, we cannot leave behind our outer lives. Even if all classes were taught the same, setting equal expectations and standards for all, it would not account for the disparate experiences outside of school that foment inequity from within.

If schools expect students to care about learning, they must care about our well-being. We must abandon the idea that personal life is independent of academic life. Researchers have documented how poverty and classroom engagement are interconnected.

There needs to be genuine and ongoing efforts by schools to explore methods of integrating social and emotional learning into school culture and outreach. SEL techniques can help students recognize their emotions, manage them, develop social awareness, make responsible decisions, and build healthy relationships.

To begin with, teachers need extensive training in SEL and should regularly model and encourage students to use these skills. By normalizing communication and vulnerability, teachers can build rapport with students, helping them feel comfortable doing the same.

One such positive SEL role model is my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Haines. By connecting with each of her students and seeking to understand their identity, Ms. Haines creates a nurturing environment where her students feel safe to express themselves and seek support.

Recently, our class started student-led conversations where my classmates and I anonymously ask questions through a form and discuss them as a whole. Ms. Haines also participates in these conversations, sharing her honest opinions and reflecting on those of others, which has encouraged us to reciprocate. In activities like these, we address uncomfortable topics such as mental health, racism and misogyny in our community and in the world at large. These discussions helped me gain comfort and confidence in solving pressing problems inside and outside the classroom and inspired me to seek solutions.

SEL practices also help educators manage each student’s unique schedules and challenges. They can recognize and help young people caring for family members, working after school, and struggling with mental health issues by offering one-on-one tutoring or time extensions.

To ensure that implementation is going well, schools should regularly survey and discuss with students which SEL components are effective and where efforts should be focused for districts, schools, and even students themselves.

An unsuccessfully integrated and targeted SEL can be unproductive or harmful. Some of my early SEL experiences in school involved oversimplified lessons that trivialized the complexity of mental health and real-life conflict. For years I thought my depression was just sadness, my anxiety was just nervousness, that I was making something out of nothing. To avoid fomenting these views in students, schools must abandon the misguided idealism that SEL administered in any form is “a cure for all.”

Just as hardship hinders the lives of students, SEL, when explored collaboratively, fosters a vital means of advancement. What works in one school may not work in another. We should not wait for a solution to present itself, but rather seek our own collaboratively by implementing and reviewing new methods as school communities.

SEL skills are applicable to all facets of life: both personal and academic, to ourselves and to the world. Above all, social and emotional learning is applicable in our schools.

It’s time to give SEL a chance.

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