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Six tips for social-emotional learning (SEL) to transfer into real-world skills


Social-emo­tion­al learn­ing (SEL) teach­es the key atti­tudes and skills nec­es­sary for under­stand­ing and man­ag­ing emo­tions, lis­ten­ing, feel­ing and show­ing empa­thy for oth­ers, and mak­ing thought­ful, respon­si­ble deci­sions. For five years, I was an edu­ca­tor in the field teach­ing mind­ful­ness and emo­tion­al skills to teenagers at six dif­fer­ent high schools.

Over and over, I saw the pow­er of mind­ful­ness to trans­form the inner lives of stu­dents. Stu­dents became less stressed, more self-reg­u­lat­ed, and more thought­ful toward their class­mates. But I also saw that stu­dents did not under­stand how to con­nect these new skills and expe­ri­ences to build pur­pose-dri­ven projects in their real lives. There was a gap between the inner devel­op­ment and the real-world imple­men­ta­tion.

That is where pur­pose-based edu­ca­tion comes in. Pur­pose, as defined by Bill Damon of Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, is “some­thing that is mean­ing­ful to the self, and con­se­quen­tial to the world.” This new move­ment of pur­pose-based learn­ing orga­ni­za­tions is con­nect­ing the prin­ci­ples and prac­tices of SEL to what stu­dents do in the world and to the ques­tion, “What do I do with my life?” It’s devel­op­ing the con­nec­tive tis­sue between inter­nal skills and exter­nal projects, future plans, and big life deci­sions.

Over the past five years, half a dozen orga­ni­za­tions have popped up around the coun­try focused on devel­op­ing pur­pose among high school stu­dents, includ­ing the Future Project, the QUES­Tions Project, NxU, Noble Impact, and Project Wayfind­er (the orga­ni­za­tion I found­ed). This new move­ment in edu­ca­tion can have a last­ing impact, as long as it evolves in the right direc­tion.

Here are a few sug­ges­tions—based on dis­cus­sions with edu­ca­tors and lead­ers of pur­pose-based orga­ni­za­tions—for edu­ca­tors seek­ing to devel­op more mean­ing and pur­pose in the lives of their stu­dents, and for those who want to take SEL and mind­ful­ness to the next lev­el.

1. Make it applicable to real life

Stu­dents need to feel and under­stand that mind­ful­ness and SEL skills will actu­al­ly be applic­a­ble out­side the class­room, to things that hap­pen in their real lives—in areas like apply­ing to col­lege, think­ing about their future, get­ting a sum­mer job, or deal­ing with fam­i­ly mat­ters at home.

For exam­ple, imag­ine a teenag­er is work­ing on a project they real­ly care about and a big piece of it falls through unex­pect­ed­ly. Then, a teacher gives them a les­son on deal­ing with adver­si­ty and dif­fer­ent strate­gies to bounce back from it. The stu­dent does the les­son with a real-life exam­ple in mind and then can apply it more read­i­ly.

The Pur­pose Com­pass, an activ­i­ty we devel­oped at Project Wayfind­er, asks stu­dents to find the inter­sec­tion of three com­po­nents: what they love to do, a need in the world, and a skill they have or want to devel­op. This con­nects a student’s self-aware­ness (know­ing what they love to do) with exter­nal life skills, thus bridg­ing the gap between the inter­nal and exter­nal. Through this activ­i­ty, a num­ber of real-life stu­dent projects have been born, like a stu­dent-designed T‑shirt com­pa­ny to sup­port social jus­tice caus­es.

2. Integrate SEL classes throughout school

One way to show how SEL lessons apply to real life is to con­nect them to oth­er sub­jects in school. Research shows that for SEL pro­grams to suc­ceed in high schools, the biggest school-wide shift they need to make is to become well-inte­grat­ed into oth­er sub­ject matters—rather than being a stand­alone “feel­ings class” (as one of my stu­dents called it) awk­ward­ly sand­wiched between chem­istry and AP his­to­ry.

There are cre­ative ways to inte­grate pur­pose learn­ing through­out class­es. At Project Wayfind­er, we’ve found that our cur­ricu­lum fits best in advi­so­ry, a kind of home­room-plus that many high schools have once or twice a week that focus­es on per­son­al devel­op­ment, life skills, and con­nect­ing with teach­ers.

Schools have found a num­ber of oth­er ways to inte­grate our curriculum—for exam­ple, in a com­bined math/English sem­i­nar or a project-based sci­ence class. One teacher in Hawaii used our tools and exer­cis­es to kick off his “Find­ing Poet­ry” course. Stu­dents are guid­ed to do inner dis­cov­ery work, which then jump­starts the cre­ative process for poet­ry.

If you want to inte­grate SEL or pur­pose learn­ing, first take an inven­to­ry of your exist­ing lessons and look for implic­it social, emo­tion­al, and moral com­po­nents. SEL and pur­pose skills could also be help­ful in the learn­ing process itself—as stu­dents try to per­se­vere, work togeth­er, and stay moti­vat­ed.

3. Bring student voices into the curricula

Stu­dents live in a dig­i­tal world where there are lit­er­al­ly mil­lions of well-designed things avail­able in the palm of their hand. This makes design even more cru­cial for engag­ing stu­dents, espe­cial­ly in a non-required or non-grad­ed course. Cur­ric­u­la need to be more than well-designed; they must be var­ied, fun, and mul­ti­me­dia. They must feel dif­fer­ent from your aver­age class.

How do you design a les­son that’s fun for stu­dents? The best way to do this is to ask them what would be engag­ing and then test it. For exam­ple, the QUES­Tions project took three years to devel­op its cur­ricu­lum with stu­dent input the whole way.

For teach­ers in the class­room, you can work with stu­dents to decide on ground rules for their lessons. Instead of hav­ing rules imposed on them, they can be involved in deci­sions about the lay­out of the class­room, how you use the class peri­od togeth­er, and how much they are teach­ing each oth­er or lead­ing the class.

We rarely ask stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate like this or give feed­back on a cur­ricu­lum, and even less often change the cur­ricu­lum based on their feed­back. At Project Wayfind­er, we test­ed every piece of the cur­ricu­lum mul­ti­ple times with a vari­ety of stu­dent groups and are mak­ing sub­stan­tial changes next year based on their feed­back. This way, the con­tent becomes even bet­ter and more tar­get­ed over time.

4. Cultural competency

Research shows that stu­dents of col­or in par­tic­u­lar do not take SEL lessons home. Being mind­ful of cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences and build­ing more cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive cur­ric­u­la will help SEL lessons be rel­e­vant to more stu­dents.

In U.S. K‑12 edu­ca­tion, stu­dents of col­or make up half the stu­dent body, but 80 per­cent of teach­ers are white. At Project Wayfind­er, we place a heavy empha­sis on recruit­ing diverse guides to help co-cre­ate our cur­ricu­lum with dif­fer­ent stu­dent pop­u­la­tions in mind, as do many of the oth­er pur­pose devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tions. The Future Project, for exam­ple, places “Dream Direc­tors“ direct­ly into schools, the major­i­ty of whom are peo­ple of col­or. These Dream Direc­tors play the role of men­tor and coach—working with stu­dents on pur­pose­ful projects and per­son­al devel­op­ment, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly try­ing to build a sup­port­ive school cul­ture.

Since devel­op­ing a sense of pur­pose is so tied to one’s iden­ti­ty, it is cru­cial to have teach­ers, men­tors, and guides that young peo­ple iden­ti­fy with in their pur­pose jour­ney. It’s also cru­cial to be more attuned to cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences in val­ues and emo­tion­al expres­sion. Rather than assum­ing that all stu­dents have a homoge­nous expe­ri­ence with con­cepts like grat­i­tude or con­flict res­o­lu­tion, for exam­ple, we can invite dis­cus­sion about these dif­fer­ences.

5. The role of the teacher

For SEL and pur­pose-based cur­ric­u­la to be effec­tive, teach­ers need to be able to embody what they are teaching—to be self-aware, emo­tion­al­ly intel­li­gent, and deeply con­nect­ed with their own sense of pur­pose.

Estab­lish­ing a cul­ture of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty in the class­room starts with the teacher,” says J. Eric Wil­son, CEO of Arkansas-based Noble Impact. “You’re ask­ing stu­dents to take a risk by open­ing up in front of their peers. Estab­lish­ing trust between the teacher and stu­dents is a pre­req­ui­site for every­thing we do.”

For exam­ple, teach­ers must be will­ing to be vul­ner­a­ble with stu­dents. They must act more like a coach or men­tor as opposed to a con­tent-deliv­ery agent.

A sim­ple exer­cise is sim­ply to spend time explain­ing why you are a teacher. Why do you choose to teach every day and care about your stu­dents? In a Project Wayfind­er activ­i­ty called The Jour­ney Track, teach­ers share their own per­son­al life jour­ney to teach­ing. Many teach­ers have said this helps stu­dents con­nect with them more deeply and see them more as a whole per­son, not just a teacher.

6. Teacher training

For SEL and pur­pose devel­op­ment pro­grams, teacher train­ing and devel­op­ment is arguably the most impor­tant piece of the puz­zle. At Project Wayfind­er, we require that every teacher who uses our cur­ricu­lum is trained by us, either at one of our sum­mer insti­tutes or at an on-site train­ing. We have found that teach­ers who do not get trained by us feel less con­fi­dent and strug­gle more in teach­ing our cur­ricu­lum. The train­ing is more than a how-to—it is a deep dive into their own sense of pur­pose and how best to relate to their stu­dents.

One of the things we and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions are con­tin­u­ing to explore is what kind of ongo­ing and increased sup­port teach­ers need as they con­tin­ue down the path of pur­pose edu­ca­tion. For exam­ple, Mind­ful Schools devel­oped a spe­cif­ic year-long cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram to help train cohorts of teach­ers to con­tin­ue to devel­op their skills.

For teach­ers that come from under­fund­ed schools, many of these pro­grams (includ­ing ours) offer schol­ar­ships, and there are an increas­ing num­ber of online tools for teach­ers to use for pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment.

Teach­ers and edu­ca­tors are thirsty for an answer to stu­dents’ feel­ings of bore­dom and the need for hoop jump­ing. They want some­thing fresh, rel­e­vant, chal­leng­ing, and inspir­ing for their stu­dents. Pur­pose edu­ca­tion has the poten­tial to fill that role—and to move stu­dents into the 21st cen­tu­ry with the skills, mind­sets, and prac­tices they need to thrive in an increas­ing­ly unpre­dictable world.

– Patrick Cook-Dee­gan is the founder and direc­tor of Project Wayfind­er. He was a 2015–2016 edu­ca­tion inno­va­tion fel­low at Stanford’s, grad­u­ate of Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, and for­mer Ful­bright Schol­ar. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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