Growing Leaders Through SEL

My oldest daughter came back from a field trip to the local water district ready to educate us about the many ways we can reduce water usage at home. She started noticing when a faucet was running unnecessarily and decided to use less water in her science experiments. She also started pointing out when her parents’ showers were too long! During the field trip, she developed a new awareness about the importance of water conservation, and decided to implement it at home. Her purpose is helping our family become more focused on reducing water usage.

Too often, Social and Emotional Learning is perceived as a tool for behavior management and compliance; something that needs to be done to students, so they can control their emotions and pay attention in class. I have written in the past about how SEL is a lot more than that: it is a tool to create positive relationships in the classroom, nurture awareness of strengths and challenges, remove barriers to learning, learn how to learn, persevere when faced with challenges and have difficult conversations, among others.

SEL is also a tool that helps students and teachers (re)discover what moves them inside and be able to articulate their purpose. In my new book, Teaching with the Heart in Mind, I explore how teachers and students can work together to articulate a sense of purpose, so they become change agents in their local and global communities. Enjoy this snippet and let me know if this resonates with your own SEL practice.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has become a global icon. In August 2018, she took time off school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament, calling for stronger climate change action. Other students joined her efforts, protesting in their own communities. Together they organized a school climate strike movement, called Fridays for Future. In September 2019, she gave a speech to hundreds of thousands of people in New York at the Global Climate Strike. Just a few days later, she spoke at the United Nations and told world leaders: “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.” Greta is intrinsically motivated to take action on a topic that worries her. She is moved by a clear sense of purpose and concern for the future, and represents a positive role model for youth involvement in important topics.

Sadly, our current educational system is not focused on encouraging students to act on the problems they see in their communities and cultivating a sense of purpose[i]; it is increasingly focused on individual performance and achievement, with the promise that once students get into college, they will be able to engage in activities or topics of their interests. For some students, this may mean years of waiting to do something that stirs their imagination. Schools should be places where students’ interests and problem-solving skills are engaged, where they can discover their deepest passions and the gifts they can provide to the world. The results of students’ disengagement are daunting.

Stress, anxiety, and self-harm rates are on the rise in the US, which not only impacts students’ experiences in school, but are also indicators of mental health problems in adulthood.[ii] In 2019, internal surveys conducted at a suburban public high school in California determined that 75% of their students felt unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. This high school is not unique.

Researchers from the Stanford-based organization Challenge Success have found that 34% of middle school students and almost half (49%) of high school students work hard in school, but rarely enjoy or find value in their schoolwork[iii]. These students tend to have higher levels of academic stress (due to grades, quizzes, and tests) than those students who are more engaged in school.  At the same time, the American Psychological Association (2014) Stress in America Survey found that school was the main source of stress for teenagers (83%), followed by getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69%).

We know that schools and teachers can implement and are implementing changes that address these issues. It starts with believing that students themselves have important ideas about how their schools could better support them. Transforming with Purpose, the last competency in the HEART model, is the place where students’ voices are elevated, and educators and students partner together to bring about change to improve their schools and communities.

Until next time, keep me posted on your SEL progress, and get in touch if you need any additional support.

Sign up for updates about the book. I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!



[i] Damon, W. (2008) The Path to Purpose. Simon & Schuster (New York)

[ii] Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128(3), 185-199.

[iii] Villeneuve, J.C., Conner, J.O., Selby, S., and Pope, D.C. (2019, Oct. 28). Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 15-19.

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