You cannot have meaningful civic engagement without social and emotional skills

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams / EdSource

Agreements to participate in a conversation held in a circle of students and staff from the Aim High summer program held at the Urban Promise Academy in Oakland.

Over the past several months, we have all witnessed heated debates on issues both big and small that have unfolded on television screens and in school board meetings across the country.

I am for dynamic civic engagement. But it is not that. Dealing with difficult conversations requires that we double our commitment to social and emotional learning.

Young people need role models. This means educators, families, and policy makers need to show what it feels like to empathize, problem-solve collaboratively, and insist on perspective taking. These skills are at the heart of social and emotional learning, which is the ongoing process of learning to understand ourselves, connect with others, achieve our goals, and support our communities. This is what we at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) represent and support as a central tenet of pre-K-12 education.

We aspire to more engaged and responsible citizens. How about asking us what skills create this result? When and where would the next generation learn these skills?

Students learn to be civically engaged by analyzing how the world’s problems affect their lives. They discover how they can make a difference and learn to work with others to create solutions. This is what social and emotional competence looks like. For example, they ask themselves, “What is going on in the world around me that I want to change? What are the issues that matter to me, my family and my friends, and how can I be part of the solution? “

The link between socio-emotional learning and civic solutions is not lost for young people.

I was inspired by Zo Pancoast, a 19 year old from Berkeley, Calif., Who recently took a year off before entering college. She wanted to apply what she had learned from social and emotional learning to her work with the Mosaic project in Oakland, an organization dedicated to uniting children of diverse backgrounds and empowering them to be peacemakers. As a young leader, she developed a summer program focused on teaching strategies for conflict resolution, empathy and celebrating differences.

As she helped prepare to discuss the links between social and emotional learning and civic engagement at our next SEL Exchange, she told us: “I think that for change to happen, you first have to hope that change is possible, and then I think you have to believe in yourself that you are able to make this change. , and I think that’s where social and emotional learning is so crucial. It is about how to make people feel valued, feel seen, feel heard and feel empowered to create that change, and how can we support them once they take action. ? “

Zo’s example is not an outlier. We can measure the effect of social and emotional learning on civic engagement in two simple ways:

  • Help students apply their social and emotional learning skills against manageable goals – When students examine the issues facing their communities, it can often seem overwhelming. But relying on social and emotional skills such as CASEL 5 (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making), we can show them that they have the necessary skills and help them set goals and manageable actions to deploy them.
  • Develop authentic relationships – We know that civic learning happens in relationships. As educators, we can provide students with frequent opportunities to practice building relationships that connect them to the wider community in meaningful ways. We can show them that the essence of agency is in relationships. We need to encourage students to share their interests, which generates an organic community, and we can encourage them to interview leaders in their communities, which puts them in direct contact with those who can help them advance their concerns.

Social and emotional learning helps us all listen to each other, bridge differences, and take meaningful action to improve our communities. This is the very essence of civic engagement. Who among us is not hungry for this?


Karen niemi is President and CEO of Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a non-profit organization that promotes social and emotional learning in education. The virtual SEL 2021 Virtual Exchange Summit, “Beyond Talk: Building Tomorrow Together,” will take place on Thursday, October 14, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET.

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