How (not) to Think of Social Emotional Learning



I can’t remember much from 5th grade PE, but one day is as clear as can be.

On the day that I remember well, our PE teachers had us run and run and run for the first half of class (and I ran more than most as running was my thing). Once we were basically worn flat out, the coaches used the second half of class to drive home a point about the value of taking care of yourself. They gave each student a straw and told us to run until they blew the whistle. So I’m running, running, running and getting pretty tired. Finally the whistle blows and I think I’m going to get some reprieve when they give us our instructions: we are only to catch our breath through the straw we’ve been given.

As it turns out, that’s nearly impossible for a bunch of exhausted 5th graders. I cheated (because there was no way I was going to admit I couldn’t). I could hardly breathe.

My PE teacher went on to connect this to why folks with emphysema experienced exhaustion so quickly. I have no idea how accurate a comparison this is, but for the first time, 11 year old me understood that this was why my grandmother always needed to take breaks while we were playing.


All this came to mind recently while readingLarry Ferlazzo’s blog on the limits of Growth Mindset and the dangers of failing to recognize those limits. Through his reflections (and my almost inexplicable connection between SEL and that fateful day in 5th grade PE), I began to wonder if we’ve begun to treat SEL as a solution to self-inflicted problems.

If we’ve ever characterized our audience for SEL using this sort of mindset, we’ve missed the point entirely.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think you have to be mean spirited to make this mistake. In fact, I think that can happen even with the best intentions in mind. I never intended to think of SEL as a solution for narrowly defined groups, but my practice has probably said otherwise at times.

That’s not ok.

I’ve written before about our power to speak life into others through our words. Our thoughts lead to our words which lead to our beliefs, and it’s imperative that we’re telling the right story with regard to SEL. Too much is on the line to stumble here. Framing SEL poorly tarnishes the life-giving value Social Emotional Learning holds in the proper context.

Although some groups may benefit more from SEL instruction, all students have something to gain from explicitly taught expectations for behavior and problem solving skills. If we allow ourselves to believe SEL is only for “those” kids (however we might define that group), we’re in trouble.


In this articlepublished in The Washington Post in 2014, Larry Ferlazzo shared this idea:

People aren’t poor because they don’t have self-control or grit — poverty itself helps create a lack of those qualities. The cognitive “bandwidth” required to deal with financial problems, stress and constant “trade-offs” (a healthy food for the family tonight or new school clothes) makes it more difficult to maintain the mental reserve needed for those SEL skills.

Ferlazzo’s characterization of the struggles of students who live in poverty (which I happen to think is spot on) pushed me to rethink my prior, erroneous connection with emphysema.



My wife had exercised induced asthma growing up. In certain conditions (namely in cold gyms), she knew she needed to have her inhaler with her. Without it, the effects of her condition as she began to work out could be harmful to both her health and state of mind. With the appropriate medical intervention, though, she was still able to move forward knowing that a plan was in place if she needed it.

Isn’t that the a big piece of most SEL instruction? What if we thought of SEL instruction as the same sort of intervention that an asthma inhaler provides?

  • Teach students to anticipate issues and react to maintain their safety at school? Check.
  • Teach students to help themselves process through a stressful situation? Check.
  • Teach students to know the outside factors that can push them into dangerous situations and how to act accordingly? Check.

Students who live in poverty suffer from something much more like asthma than emphysema. The risks they’re up against can be greatly reduced with the proper intervention and education (in this case, quality SEL).

The symptoms for a student who lives in poverty are just as out of his control as an asthmatic’s are to him. They aren’t anything he asked for, and they’re not something he can ask to go away or simply walk away from (at least not without serious risk to the student). Although that student might have some limited control over how he responds in certain situations, if an attack comes and he hasn’t thought of a way to respond proactively, he’s going to be stuck.

We can teach students how to react in certain stressful situations, so we should.

Choosing not to include any SEL instruction for your students is a lot like knowing that some students need inhalers, but not giving them the support they need during physical activity. Blame it on time, blame it on resources, blame it on whatever you’d like. If you failed to provide an inhaler and a student had an asthma attack, you would have to answer for that.

Our students need quality SEL instruction not because it will make them all wildly successful academics; they need it because it’s their inhaler. It allows them to continue to exercise, improve, and compete in the classroom and on campus.

Let me be clear: Just like an inhaler isn’t going to make every student able to run the mile at the same pace, even the best SEL instruction in the world doesn’t level the playing field for every student. They’re still going to struggle, it’s still going to be tough, and some will want to quit. Still, it would be irresponsible to see a gap, know that we can provide a support for that deficiency, and not act. Nobody would say forget the inhaler. Nobody.

All of our students are running, and they all get tired throughout the year. But when when it’s time to recover, many students are breathing through straws because of the after effects of circumstances out of their control. It’s our job as educators to identify our struggling students those students and put the proper supports in place to let them breathe well.

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