Finding the Balance within Social and Emotional Learning

balanceSomething has been nagging at me for a while and I just can’t shake it. It has to do with the increasingly-important-and-gaining-momentum-daily, Social and Emotional Learning. Often referred to as SEL, it’s the L that’s making my teeth itch. Yes, kids (and the adults who interact with them in the world) need to develop the mindset, skills, awareness, intention, and rationale of social and emotional [fill in the blank]. But I worry that if we become overly focused on the learning piece we might overlook the other part – the space that allows youth to experience the the social and emotional “ness” that is critical to being a socially and emotionally developed member of humanity. It’s more than learning to do these things, it is existing in spaces that support social and emotional expression, becoming, and well-being (like the thoughtful spaces mentioned in the November Diving into SEL post).

I recently watched a documentary about a girl dying of brain cancer who was preparing to freeze her brain in the hope that science might catch up later (Cryogenics) – it is part of one of our Composing our World 9th grade ELA units exploring the interplay between technology and human life. As I watched the video I felt a surge of emotion not at all related to my “purpose” for viewing. I recently lost a friend to a similar type of cancer. Seeing it all unfold before my eyes was almost too much to take. I considered turning the documentary off, but wanted to see it through. I ended up checking my email for a few minutes – a distraction to keep me from letting loose the sob I was holding inside. And it got me thinking. I didn’t need to “learn” how to feel or to express myself or how to discuss these ideas with others. What I needed was space to process my own connections and emotions and to think through my reactions on my own and with others. I talked it out later with friends and family. I’ll be okay. But what about kids in classrooms?

We may need to recalibrate our intentions around SEL. Yes, the S, the E, and the L are important but so is the 4th letter in this acronym though I’m not sure what to call it that would be catchy enough to stick: SELS – social and emotional learning space; SEWL – social and emotional wellbeing and learning; SEEL – social and emotional experiencing and learning. While I work on my acronym, I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this dilemma. Without a doubt there are a lot of skills and dispositions that kids can develop in the area of social and emotional learning and when you read more about SEL it’s clear that this piece is intended. Mary Kelly’s recent Mindfulness post was so useful in thinking about the teacher’s role in presenting and supporting these spaces.

Forgive me for taking SEL at face value here, focusing exclusively on the name. There is much more to it, but names carry a lot of weight and while there is learning to be done for all of us, I wonder if the emphasis on learning falls short of what’s needed to truly realize the potential of SEL.



February 2016
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  1. Karla Scornavacco
    February 8, 2016

    “the space that allows youth to experience the the social and emotional “ness” that is critical to being a socially and emotionally developed member of humanity.” – resonates so much! Thank you for sharing. I’m all for adding an S to this now popular acronym!

  2. Mara
    February 8, 2016

    I had a similar response reading this, Karla! I love the new acronym, SELS, as envisioned here.

  3. mary.r.kelly
    February 11, 2016

    I have been sitting with this for a while and I think your post helped me think about the importance of the name, not only in how teachers frame SEL in their classrooms, but also how teachers consider their students and develop the space and experience necessary to truly express vulnerability and emotion. For example, mindfulness wasn’t frustrating for my students as a concept, but the name—along with my positionality as a white woman—evoked hesitation and demanded a conversation about culture. I think you taking SEL at “face value” revealed a tension and confusion that I had been exploring since my post. A name might actually be a strategy or practice in bringing SEL or SEEL or SELS into various classroom contexts. What it means to me to be mindful might look different when I am with my students. If we can name the process together, it might hold a different definition and thus a different presentation. I loved this post. Loved, loved, loved it.

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