Education has been front and center in the national news during the pandemic and as children have returned to school, reminding us of the importance of learning for our families and futures. Given the interruptions of the last several years, children’s social and emotional experiences as well as their academic needs are often discussed. For decades, research about social and emotional learning (SEL) has shown it to be a solid support for academic learning and life outcomes (1). It makes sense that being in a safe environment and learning skills to understand and control ourselves, get along with others, build positive relationships, and make good choices, helps everyone learn, achieve, and be healthy. A recent survey showed a majority of parents want their children to develop these “life” skills in school and at home.
All of this relates to the work of Candor Health Education as a provider of prevention and health education for students in their schools. Prevention science has evolved through the years and has shown great success in reducing teen pregnancy and smoking (Monitoring the Future; HHS). Today, prevention programs are not the dramatic and catastrophic variety that we grew up with. Rather, classes today include social and emotional learning skills together with information, taught by trained educators who engage students in relevant discussions, scenarios, and role plays that address their lives as adolescents.
As every parent of a pre-teen or teenager knows, students this age are often very good at learning information but they can be compromised by peer pressure and their own emotions. Prevention and health education provide current information and integrate it with skills that help students understand their developing bodies and minds and learn practical ways to navigate the landscape of adolescence. In these classes, students are learning about how their brains are wired as well as ways they can calm themselves, cope with stress, handle complex social situations and the emotional influence of social media. To put it in SEL terms, they learn how to recognize and understand their feelings, how to manage themselves, how to understand others and develop empathy, and how to make responsible decisions. All of this underpins the information they learn about the risks of substances and the nature of their developing bodies.
When young people hear important information from multiple reliable sources (i.e. respected adults and parents), it is more likely that they internalize the message. As a parent, I have valued the role of educators as another voice our children hear about these often tough topics. As we all know, it’s not a one-and-done conversation, but rather, it is a sequence of conversations and experiences through time that guide youth to make good choices.
SEL builds on what are known as character education and life skills with the addition of brain science, and a focus on skill building. In the end, this supports learning and that is why it has become an element in many schools and districts (3).
At home, families play an essential role in children’s social and emotional development. Parents are both models and mentors and our examples and insights can be powerful. For example, expressing your feelings of frustration, worry, or sadness can go a long way in helping children learn to describe and manage their own negative feelings. Talking through your process of solving a problem conveys real, practical ideas about how to make a decision. There are more ideas here about helping your children strengthen their SEL skills (4).
But is information and discussion ever enough to keep youth safe from the many risks and the social influences they face? Parents matter, according to Laurence Sternberg, PhD, author of The Age of Opportunity, Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. His focus on neuroscience and behavior points out the mismatch between teenagers’ cognitive capacity and self-control. Teens are compromised by their need to belong and the impact of their emotions on decision-making. To bridge the divide, he endorses parental modeling and monitoring. This involves setting a good example in the safe use of alcohol and medications, telling teens what you expect and what the consequences will be if they abuse your rules, connecting with other parents, and being informed and aware about the nature of adolescence.
No one says any of this is easy, but parents are not alone and excellent resources are available to support us and our growing children.
(3) ISBE, https://www.isbe.net/Pages/Social-Emotional-Learning-Standards.aspx