Social Emotional Learning Archives - Linda Inlay
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Educating Self-Actualized Students

Chance at his 8th grade PromotionOne of my favorite books on education is Krishnamurti’s Education and the Meaning of Life. As I reflect on what is the purpose of education beyond preparing students with skills for employment, I recall Krishnamurti’s quote: “The purpose of education is not to produce more scholars, technicians and job hunters, but integrated men and women who are free of fear. Education should awaken the capacity to be self-aware…and intelligent. Intelligence is the capacity to perceive the essential, the what is; and to awaken this capacity in oneself and in others.”

When I attended the River School’s promotion ceremony of its 8th graders last night, I experienced this kind of integrated self-actualization in the students, a process and journey that started in 6th grade and through mistakes, reflection, risk-taking, and adults’ care and support, resulted in self-wisdom three years later.

One of the student speakers shared the challenges of his 6th grade year when his mother passed away from a brain tumor. I recall how lost he was for most of that year, how he went home several times because he didn’t feel well and couldn’t get through the day. His grief and “drifting at sea-ness” was palpable as our staff supported him through that first year. He talked about slowing emerging from the fog in his seventh grade year. He blossomed in his eighth grade year, coming into his own power and into his own voice to be able to speak confidently and authentically at his promotion about his three years at River. We were all enthralled by the “realness” of his presence before five hundred friends and family gathered for the promotion ceremony. To see such wisdom in someone so young was moving and a gift. By his “beingness,” he made such a positive impact on his classmates. It was obvious by their response throughout his speech, he is held in high esteem by his classmates.

Educating self-actualized students can happen when the mission includes this vision and when the environment – the hidden or implicit curriculum – of a school nurtures the social and emotional needs of students. Especially in middle school, their need to feel belonging and acceptance is critical to the developmental process in order to actualize their unique identity. John Goodlad said in his book, In Praise of Education, that “A self cannot be fully realized apart from culture.” When the culture supports the growing self-awareness of the students, they come into their own authenticity. Their confidence is grounded less on what others think of them but on what they have come to know and accept about themselves.

Every year I would ask a group of eighth graders to speak to the seventh and sixth graders about what they learned that would help their younger peers. The wisdom they shared included such insights as:

  • “Don’t try to be someone else. When you’re trying to be someone else, everyone knows. And It doesn’t feel good to be fake.”
  • “Don’t worry about what other people think. When you do, you lose yourself because you’re more focused on them than on what you think.”
  • “Life is tough sometimes but with true friends, you can get through the tough times so chose your friends wisely.”
  • “Don’t procrastinate. I learned the hard way that that doesn’t work well and stresses you out.”
  • “You’ve got to believe in yourself, even when it’s hard. And don’t give up just because it’s hard.”

Each year I am amazed by their wisdom. I don’t really think I learned some of these lessons until I was in college. And then to be able to articulate these self-actualized thoughts to their peers and to an audience of five hundred is breathtaking.

This kind of “implicit” curriculum is focused on building capacity of students from the inside out, from an intentional focus on developing character and integrity, from self-awareness and self-reflection, from daring to speak their truth, and from the adults who listen deeply because they care. If all schools nurtured such students, the world would be a different place.

Trusting Relationships and Emotions to Create a Safe Environment

 

Happy Students

Nurturing happy students in safe schools

With the rise of bullying and suicides, I’ve considered how focusing on emotions contribute to happy students and safe schools. A few years back I read Dan and Chris Heath’s book Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard. They used an analogy from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Project to describe two powerful systems in humans that affect our choice making. Our choices are influenced by how we feel and how we think – the emotional side and rational side of our brain. Haidt used the analogy of the elephant and the rider, where the elephant represents the powerful emotional part of who we are and the tiny rider who attempts to control and guide the elephant is the rational, analytical part.

Having been an educator for forty-one years and the last eighteen as a principal of a middle school, I have known how powerful emotions are in a school, especially with middle schoolers. When something has upset them at home, they bring those emotions to school and it takes awhile for them to transition into their day at school. When their feelings are hurt because their friend has gone off to sit with someone else for lunch, they take those feelings into the next class and find it hard to concentrate. While I am an adult, I too like my students am affected when my feelings are hurt or when I’m embarrassed or when I am angry. I believe that all human beings are affected by their emotions. While we are better at hiding them as adults, it doesn’t mean that we are unaffected by them. This is why I chose to write this post about trusting relationships and emotions to create a safe environment.

So, it has always been surprising to me that in general most schools pay little attention to emotions in a proactive, supportive way.  While at the same time, schools have to deal with the results of students acting out their emotions through disrespect, bullying, spreading rumors, and other kinds of distracting and unhealthy behaviors. At River School where I was principal, we intentionally created an emotionally safe environment so students would feel safe to share their feelings with their teachers and with their peers. Students see their teachers as mentor/friends and not just teachers. As a result, our students love school. Because they love school, they flourish emotionally and academically. On the California Healthy Kids Survey, our school would always score the highest in our county.

I learned the importance of tending to the whole person, their social and emotional selves,  when I first started teaching in Hawaii at Our Lady of Sorrows School. It was fortunate that at that time Sr. Joan Madden’s new program, the Ho’āla Philosophy, was newly implemented. I have taken those lessons about creating emotionally safe environments to the classrooms where I taught and to the school for which I was the principal for eighteen years.  Today I am relieved to see more and more recognition that the social and emotional aspects of students cannot be ignored as rising statistics about anxiety, depression, and suicide increase among our students nationwide. There is more conversation about SEL – social emotional learning – on the national stage. And I read just recently that ASCD’s Whole Child initiative is partnering with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and with Born This Way Foundation (founded by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta) http://bornthisway.foundation/emotionrevolution/ to empower youth to create school communities where emotions matter in order to improve school climate.

If you are a parent or an educator, what efforts does your child’s school implement to support the emotional well being of ALL its students? Are there students who sit in the courtyard alone? How are the “silent” students encouraged to speak up? Do teachers and students have caring relationships? School culture and climate impacts the life of students greatly. How healthy is your school’s culture and climate – both among its students and among its teachers to create happy students and a safe school?