All Learning Is Social & Emotional

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is simultaneously a product and a process, focused both on what we learn and how we learn it. It involves understanding and developing intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and placing a more intentional focus on making thoughtful and responsible decisions.

Until the last few decades, the teaching and learning of SEL skills was largely overlooked or left to chance. Many adults would agree that they were never directly taught how to identify or express emotions, how to look at a situation from another person's perspective, or why it would be important to do so, and these skills and abilities were left un- or at least under-developed.

Over the past decade and a half, many schools began to recognize the connections between social-emotional learning and academic success and initiated a commitment to educate the whole child. Self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationships skills, and healthy decision-making have taken their place alongside and in conjunction with more traditional school subject matter such as language, math, and sciences.

Most recently, SEL skills have come under suspicion. They have been misrepresented as a cover for teaching Critical Race Theory and Comprehensive Sex Education to children. While strong social and emotional skills can support both children and adults as they engage in complex conversations about race, sexuality, and gender identity, they are not interchangeable, nor are they being implemented with the goal of manipulation or falsification. Rather, social-emotional skills provide a much-needed foundation for finding common ground. Regardless of where a person falls on a political, ideological, religious, gender, sexuality, or racial spectrum, all individuals can benefit from skills that promote empathy and communication. The ability to problem-solve, to work as a team, to be resilient, and to navigate change and ambiguity are essential for human survival. We can view these skills as tools to help society emerge from the pandemic, bridge cultural and political divides, and prevent violence. But on the way toward tackling such complexities, we have to be able and willing to know and share our own views, hear opinions with which we agree and disagree, and be able to move beyond impasses while maintaining respect for ourselves and others. SEL skills can unite us in this work.

All learning is social and emotional. If we embrace this truth together and allow schools and out-of-school programs to equip students with the skills needed to navigate the world that has been created for them, we can help to facilitate the change that is so desperately needed. While correlation does not imply causation, the relative historical absence of intentionally teaching SEL has coincided with our arrival at some very divided places. Rather than leave the next generation unprepared to succeed in the society they will inherit, we can assist by giving them the foundational abilities to understand themselves and others, to think critically, and to communicate honestly and respectfully. Thoughtful instruction in these essential competencies can give children and adolescents the best chance to successfully navigate the inevitably bumpy path toward a more hopeful future.


Every Inhale Is a New Beginning

There are some well-known points in time that have become associated with new beginnings in the United States: January 1st, springtime, the onset of another school year. (Not surprisingly, these points in time have become commercialized and connected to sales—of gym memberships and planners in January, new tools for yard and garden maintenance in spring, new clothes and school supplies in late summer/early fall.) Some people choose more personalized times to honor new beginnings—their birthday, the anniversary of a significant event in their life or in the world, or a particular religious holiday. While all of these markers have their significance, they may subtly tempt us into a mindset that there is a limitation on the time within which new beginnings are possible. For people who are looking to make a change in their lives, such a mindset is clearly limiting.

For individuals working toward living with intention, a valuable insight can be taken from the practice of mindful breathing, which encourages a gentle and curious focus on the motion of the breath. The symbolism inherent in mindful breathing is that every inhale is a new beginning. Because of the cyclical nature of the breath, intentional focus can allow us to become aware of a multitude of beginnings and endings within the breaths we inhale and exhale across even a minute's time.

Empowered by an awareness of the approximately 20,000 breaths/new beginnings a healthy individual experiences in one 24-hour period, we can begin to realize that any moment can be the right time to start anew, to shift focus, to begin to forgive ourselves or others, to add to or subtract something from our life. Breath also teaches us that we don't need to hang onto the past (in the form of the out breath), we don't need to rush into the future (in the form of taking the next in breath), that there is much that the present moment holds if we are willing to take the time to notice.

Consider the unlimited potential for new beginnings by trying a mindful breathing exercise here.


The Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit

Last week, I had the opportunity to (virtually) attend the Science and Wisdom of Emotions summit, a 4-day array of presentations, panel discussions and guided practices focused on emotional intelligence and its connections to well-being. There were many intersections between the summit topics and the concept of living with intention, so I thought I would share some takeaways that merit further reflection.

  • Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother's Hands, spoke about Somatic Abolitionism, freeing the body from enslavement to racialized trauma. His work emphasizes that racism resides in the body and therefore must be addressed in the body, not in the head. Too often, we ignore or avoid feelings as we experience them physically, and he calls us to face our discomfort in order to metabolize pain. Intentionally being present with our bodies, whatever they are experiencing, and learning to sit with discomfort, can allow us to do many things. This includes facing the difficult work about race that our ancestors could not, and no longer storing our racial pain so that we have the chance to end its multi-generational transmission. Some of his body practices can be found here. 

  • Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez challenges viewers to feel and act on empathy through her social sculptures addressing themes such as the US/Mexico border wall and rising sea levels. She encourages us to explore the power of creative potential and transform hearts and minds by opening them to compassion. How might each of us use our own creativity to get ourselves and others to look with a more compassionate gaze? How might seemingly-simple materials such as paint chips, water, or sky-colored pigment catch a viewer's attention enough to cause a purposeful pause?  Ana's Social Sculpture work.

  • Buddhist and scholar Alan Wallace acknowledges the role that hedonia (pleasure experienced in response to an agreeable stimulus) plays in happiness, but emphasizes that this type of pleasure is transient and competitive. Genuine well-being must involve eudaimonia—the cultivation of the mind, of one's relationship with oneself, and of the pursuit of one's potential and purpose. He asks us to consider how we might act intentionally to give joy to a person, a moment, or to the world, rather than receive it.

  • Laurie Santos, happiness researcher, shared the data and science supporting engagement in social connection, gratitude practice, and truly feeling compassion for others and for oneself. Slowing down and creating a different relationship with time can have a profound impact on our level of happiness as well. One example includes savoring, the act of becoming present with whatever it is we are enjoying with our senses, allowing good moments to last a little longer. Check out her podcast, The Happiness Lab.

  • Modupe Akinola looks at stress in the workplace and encourages us to transform our relationship to stress. Using introspection and individualization, we can develop a new mindset and reappraise stress as an ally, which can allow us to remember the times in the past that we rose to the occasion and thrived, to read our physiological symptoms of stress as a signal of engagement, and to ask ourselves how our stress is helping us.

  • Social-emotional learning researchers Mark Greenberg, Patricia Jennings and Robert Jagers encourage us to look at the role of emotions in the school setting. Intentional implementation of emotional education initiatives can benefit students by increasing their sense of safety in school, positively impacting their ability to focus academically, and ultimately promoting prosocial outcomes well past high school and college graduation. SEL programs can also teach youth to receive compassion, to keep the passion but drop the hatred of righteous anger, and to find connections to our common humanity.

  • Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Nepalese Tibetan Buddhist teacher, encourages us to work with our difficult emotions, or “beautiful monsters”. Rather than suppressing, ignoring, changing, or fixing our feelings, he invites us to welcome and notice them, to be with and in the feeling. Through a grounded body, open heart, and clear mind, we are able to get enough space to know that we are not our feelings, we just experience them. Access one of his teachings here.

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jon Kabat-Zinn continued to weave the theme of promoting growth and transformation through mindful awareness and compassion. It was clear that all of the speakers approach their research or philosophy as work in progress, necessitating trial and error, an open mind and heart, and the willingness to gently persist. None of the practices shared at the summit are stand-alone exercises or quick fixes. Considered in this context, they can allow us to plant some mental seeds as we reflect on the next step we might take out of autopilot and into a more intentional life.

Living With Intention

Intentional living is a practice of making thoughtful, examined choices.

But rather than living with intention, we often live life on autopilot. We fall into habits that become established through the comfort of repetition and predictability. We don't pause to consider whether or not the ways in which we spend our time really reflect what we say we value. We wonder how an entire day, week, month, or year has gone by in a flash.

We get ourselves through school and hopefully acquire some intellectual and academic skills. We are taught to read, to write, to solve mathematical equations. But we also need to know how to communicate effectively, approach others with empathy, and regulate an array of emotions. More often than not, these just-as-essential skills are not directly taught. Some people may be fortunate enough to pick them up along the way. But why, exactly, are these intrapersonal and interpersonal skills left to chance?

Thoughtful, examined, intentional living can allow us to step out of autopilot, to identify our strengths as well as those skills we may be lacking, and choose to do something different. This does not mean that we have to get mired in an analysis of every thought or next step we take. It does mean being more mindful in the act of connecting with ourselves.

Choosing to live an intentional life can involve:

  • giving more consideration to your intrapersonal relationship—your relationship with yourself. It's the most enduring relationship in your life, so it should certainly be a healthy one.
  • taking a closer look at whether or not the choices we make in our relationships, careers, finances, and lifestyle choices are in alignment with our values. When there is a mismatch between our values and our lived experience, we feel the imbalance but may not be able to explain it.
  • identifying the skills we need to utilize in our everyday encounters and zeroing in on the ones we have not yet been taught. There is not a time or an age limit on learning how to identify and express feelings, examine biases or evaluate the ways in which we make decisions.
  • listening more closely to our self talk. We all talk to ourselves, and the messages we repeat have power and impact. We can choose to use that power productively instead of destructively.
  • distinguishing between the choices we have made for ourselves and the choices that others have made for us. We know that whether it's through our family of origin, popular culture, or long-standing social norms, we are influenced and shaped by the opinions of other people. Just because a message was passed down from a powerful source or has rooted itself in collective consciousness doesn't mean it is just or true or deserving of endurance.

The decision to live with intention is not a one-time choice, and it is not a destination. It is a series of deliberate, purposeful pauses, which give us the opportunity to check in with ourselves, confirm what we know, seek resources as needed, and move forward mindfully. Taking these pauses allows us to notice whatever is within us and around us along the journey, keeping us aware of our pathway more than our end point.