Social Emotional Learning and Adult Learning: Connecting the Dots | New Visions for Public Schools

Social Emotional Learning and Adult Learning: Connecting the Dots

As a child, my father would jokingly say to me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” He intuitively understood that his strategy of telling, rather than showing or modeling, wouldn’t work with me.

This common sense concept holds true in the emerging field of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as well - both with students and adults. How can we design our schools to foster social emotional competence in students without doing so with the adults? 

SEL has been defined as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.” ( The phrase “and adults” may seem out of place because school is all about student growth, right?

Social emotional learning is often thought of as something extra to be taught in social skills classes, advisory groups, or in preschool, but let’s face it, any social learning environment is full of feelings. At any given moment in the classroom, any one student (or adult) can feel the range of human feelings available.

At New Visions Charter High Schools (NVCHS) we take adult development seriously (see New Visions Promotes Learning at All Levels), and we have come to understand that when adults feel “well held” in their own growth and development, they tend to be better able to craft learning environments and model the same with students.

Our challenge, at the network level, is greater than boosting student achievement through Regents exam pass rates and other college readiness metrics. We must prepare students to navigate the world of relationships beyond high school - and we must do so indirectly, by working with adults (see "The Prosocial Classroom").

So the question emerges: How do we develop capacity among adults to foster social emotional competence in students everyday?

At NVCHS, we know immersive experiences motivate teachers to try new things (see the Living Environment Pilot and the Parent Leadership Training Institute). Each of these social learning experiences are microcosms of what occurs in other classrooms, organizations, the family, staff meetings, and classroom groups of which our students are members.

As an instructional specialist for social emotional learning, I design experiential workshops to contain some of the most basic activities inherent in the social learning environments of school: Listening, sharing (resources like time), tolerating frustration, making choices, and reflection. Each of these activities approximates the inherent demands of life in groups and, when paid close attention to and worked with by an emotionally oriented educator, serve as a basis for enhancing social emotional competence, regardless of the type of group or age of the group member. An alignment of these demands of group life and CASEL’s (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) social emotional competencies are outlined here:

Another way to think about this alignment of group demands and SEL are as follows:

  • Listening builds social awareness
  • Sharing resources builds relationship skills
  • Tolerating frustration builds self management
  • Making choices builds decision making
  • Reflection builds self awareness

As you can see, you are already working with these basic teaching activities (listening, sharing, etc.) in your classroom. It's my hope that this post can help to add a level of intentionality to your work (read more about Intentionality and SEL).

The emerging field of Teacher Emotion Research (Schutz, Paul A., Zembylas, Michalinos) is helping us to understand the emotional labor associated with leading learning in classrooms. Teachers have available to them, at each moment in the classroom, a very large set of emotional data. Although this very real emotional data does not live easily on a spreadsheet, there are trends and patterns, anomalies and phenomena about which we can become curious. In short, this data has meaning and can be put to use constructively towards learning goals.

The school and classroom environment, with all of its structures, constraints, and evaluative testing is a rich laboratory for integrating social emotional learning, whatever the task at hand.

Stay tuned for a blog post about a tool for analyzing emotional data in the classroom.


David Rothauser is an Instructional Specialist for Social Emotional Learning at New Visions. Follow him on Twitter at @davidrothauser.