Imagine what would happen if a preschooler didn’t “use their words” when they got upset about sharing, instead stomping around yelling while adults simply observed in silence. Think about what the school climate would feel like if a student punched another during recess while others watched without seeking help.  

Sandra Chafouleas

Now consider the actions – and inactions – by Trump Jan. 6 as the electoral vote counts occurred at the U.S. Capitol. Those behaviors show a desperate need for social emotional learning. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social emotional learning involves five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Trump did not demonstrate these competencies when the election didn’t go the way he wanted. 

Connecting these school scenarios and Trump’s behaviors is not intended to contribute to the ever-mounting list of recommended consequences that could result from his fueling the insurrection that our nation has just experienced. It does bear noting, however, that if Trump were a Black teenager, he most certainly would have received exclusionary disciplinary action such as suspension and perhaps even expulsion from school. 

The purpose in connecting the two scenarios is to draw energies toward actions that propel us forward in bridging a divided nation. The responsibility for forward movement falls to future generations, which means it is critical that we pay attention to what happens in schools right now. We need to demand that policies and practice — and necessary resources — are put in place to strengthen school capacity to support students on their path to holding responsibility for democracy. 

Many excellent resources have quickly appeared to assist educators in teaching about the insurrection. Discussion guides are available to facilitate defining key terms, contrasting events through a social justice lens, and comparing justifications for action using fact checking. Other resources have been released that help adults talk about violence and support emotional safety of kids. 

What seems to be less prominent, however, is a direct connection to the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that we have just witnessed are missing. Education systems have begun the work of acknowledging their historic roles in contributing to exclusion, inequity, and intolerance of differences. Educators are working hard to turn the tide toward promising alternative approaches. Prominent among those approaches is a focus on social emotional skills. In either classroom scenario above, educators would be jumping into discussion about what supports are needed to address student needs. 

Social and emotional well-being fulfills us throughout every stage of life – integrating those skills should be in all that we do as adults to model, teach, and give feedback to our children. Of course schools must teach academic content areas and have high expectations, but there is tremendous potential to increase capacity to embed exploration, active practice, and positive feedback about social and emotional skills within each corner of the day. 

As one example, history professor Kellie Carter Jackson writes about challenges in teaching violence in political history. The author describes the need to question how political violence should be labeled, which could reveal an expression of unmet need by marginalized people. Learning through this analysis offers social and emotional parallels, such as examining biases, recognizing emotions, and examining integrity. As another, Facing History and Ourselves offers a classroom resource specific to the insurrection. Activities reference principles of social and emotional learning, such as steps for educators to practice self-awareness and relationship skills by examining their own emotions and perspectives. Student self-management and social awareness builds through reflection activity that builds civic agency. All of these examples offer incredible opportunity in social and emotional learning that could be advanced with more explicit connection. Entrenching social and emotional learning within the school day beyond this immediate teachable moment also is needed to enable sustained effort. 

CASEL identifies adults as key to social emotional strategies that will maintain safe, supportive, and equitable learning environments for this moment in history. To do so requires a strong collection of social, emotional, and behavioral education policies and practices. Responsibility for urgently resourcing this collection rests within each of us, right now, to ensure future generations who can and do take part in a resilient democratic nation.

Sandra M. Chafouleas is licensed psychologist and Distinguished Professor with expertise in school psychology and school mental health at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

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