Schools across the country are re-opening their doors this month to begin a new school year. This is a time that should be full of promise. But due to the current climate in this country, it is also one of fear and divisiveness.
Many schools have or are actively responding to calls that they integrate social and emotional learning into academics as a way address discipline problems, increase student engagement, and better prepare students for college, work and life. Some communities see this as an opportunity to move beyond testing, hoping that it signals room for teaching the arts, nurturing positive relationships and rewarding responsible and compassionate behavior. Others see it as a threat to parents’ rights to establish a values base for their children by advocating tolerance for lifestyles or life choices they don’t agree with.
There is a middle ground, and we need school and community leaders to find it quickly. Our future as a democracy is in jeopardy. We – parents, educators, faith leaders, youth leaders and all citizens – need to up the stakes on this call for schools to integrate social and emotional learning into the school curriculum. We need to call for social and emotional safety and social and emotional healing in schools and our communities. There is no doubt that standards need to be set, staff trained and students taught. But the commitment needed is more urgent and more complex to deliver on than commitments to implement universal pre-kindergarten or algebra for all. Expanding coverage and course access are huge wins in the struggle for equitable education. Let’s not mince words, we need to reclaim the idea that our schools and our civic and youth-serving organizations share the responsibility for moral education or character education. Religious education falls to families and their chosen faith organizations. Character education is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as:
… a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care
about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others. Upon such core values, we form the attitudes and actions that are the hallmark of safe, healthy and informed communities that serve as the foundation of our society.
Why does character education belong in schools? John Dewey, the great educator and philosopher, offers a simple, powerful answer:
“Education is a social process; education is growth; is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
School is where young people spend the most concentrated period of time learning. And learning is fundamentally social and emotional. When children don’t feel socially accepted and emotionally safe, they’re not learning science or math. They’re learning that they don’t matter to the adults in charge. When children contribute to or even watch other children being taunted and marginalized with no adults coming to their defense, they’re learning that some lives matter more than others.
Students can learn to regulate their emotions, be empathetic, work in teams, be responsible, take initiative and solve problems. They can hone and use these skills when they are with children and families like them. They can challenge themselves to use these skills when they are in diverse groups or in groups in which they are in the minority. They can learn to use these skills to work with others to tackle big problems facing their community (from deportation to drinking water quality). They can use them to protect themselves from mistreatment by peers, family members or, unfortunately, adult professionals. They can use them to understand how their own fears and biases can cause them to make poor decisions. But they learn best when adults lead the way.
There is one thing we know. This country has moved beyond hypotheticals here. Children are bringing questions and examples and demonstrations of fear and hate into their classrooms, youth organizations, hangouts and homes. We as adults cannot be silent. At this point complacency is complicity. And we, as adults, need to expect and ensure that those charged with working with children – our teachers and youth workers – need to have the skills, the freedom and the responsibility to respond not only with compassion but with civil conversations, factual accuracy and moral clarity.