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Is Social Emotional Learning the Holistic Solution Education Needs?


Take a moment to think about some of the most challenging memories of adolescence: missing the game-winning layup, flunking the big test, being rejected from the “cool kids’” lunch table. How did you handle it? 

If you’re like most people, the answer is…not well. Growing up is a tricky time, filled with instances that we can, in the moment, perceive as the highest peaks and the lowest valleys of our entire life, forever and ever—the literal end of the world. And everyday, we’re expected to show up the next day and face it again.

This is great preparation for life, where wins and losses come and go, but consistently showing up to our responsibilities is true victory. However, during adolescence, that perspective hasn’t kicked in yet. Puberty hasn’t even kicked in yet. 

So, what do we do? How can we manage these emotions and channel them into learning experiences and growth opportunities? The truth is, we can’t. Not alone, at least. We need proper guidance. And that’s what educators—teachers, parents, and guardians—are for.

Adroit and empathetic educators actively work us through emotions; they show us how we can capitalize on our best qualities, learn from and grow through our challenges, and use this self-reflection to thrive later in life. But not all educators actively measure how their guidance plays into a child’s development. To the educator, it’s just their duty to help kids. The idea of quantifying this impact and learning from the results hasn’t quite assimilated — yet.

This is where the folks at the Urban Assembly, along with the New York City Department of Education, enter into the equation. Through their collaborative program, called “StrongResilientNYC,” the two organizations are working together to incorporate a systematic approach educators can use to help children mold adolescent emotions into self-awareness, and use this newfound trait as fuel to support future success. This process is called “Social Emotional Learning,” and it might just be the future of our education system.

What Is Social Emotional Learning?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social and emotional learning (SEL) is the “process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

But how do Urban Assembly employees—the ones directly involved with this project—view SEL and its importance? Luckily, there are 15 GSS community members in total currently working for the UA in some capacity on this project—from managers to interns. 

“Social emotional learning is the ability to adapt to challenges and to be flexible,” Danielle Reece, GSS ‘19 and Urban Assembly Social Emotional Learning Program Manager, said. “[These are] basic life skills that are not necessarily a ‘priority’ in academic learning, like communication, building relationships, and managing emotions.”

The hope is that in teaching this flexibility and skills based around relationships and communication, the StrongResilientNYC program builds a specific trait of self-awareness in students. But terms like “self-awareness” can be confusing, and sometimes come off as abstract to kids and lofty to adults. Without concrete definitions or directions, terms like “self-awareness” represent some pie-in-the-sky ideal, and are therefore unattainable by sheer unapproachability. So, what does the StrongResilientNYC program define as “self-awareness,” and why is it important?

To examine this, Reece and her colleague Kandra Knowles, currently a GSS doctoral student, showed me a copy of the Urban Assembly’s SEL Competencies Sheet. The sheet divides SEL Competencies into four categories—Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, and Social Management. Each competency has three to four specific indicators or behaviors that the UA team deems indicative of that competency. 

For example, the Self-Awareness Competency has four indicators students can demonstrate: awareness of needs and emotions; awareness of personal traits; awareness of external supports; and a sense of personal responsibility. 

But below each indicator is where things get really interesting. Paired with each Competency indicator is an impetus on the adults around the child to display those behaviors as well, or the “Adult SEL”.. Under the “awareness of needs and emotions” indicator, for example, reads, “Adults around me model awareness of what they need and feel.” This is an important reminder to the adults in the room: the kids are watching you. What kind of example are you setting? How do you show up to life and earn that victory?

“We don’t grow up learning about these SEL skills,” Knowles said. “So having this be very specific about what self-awareness is, is very helpful. It allows us to share what self-awareness is in a tangible way.”

At least, we didn’t grow up learning about them until now. 

How Is This Implemented?

OK, you might be thinking. I’m on board with self-awareness and SEL. But how is this done in a meaningful way? 

The answer lies within a combination between two things: the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), and what Reece and Knowles refer to as “The Portal.”

According to Apeture Education, “The DESSA suite of SEL assessments empowers educators to build a measurable and actionable social and emotional learning (SEL) program with reliable assessment…It provides a common lens and language for crafting an SEL program that involves educators, parents, and students.”

More granularly, the DESSA assessment asks parents and teachers to rate each child’s ability to meet eight different core competencies of SEL—competencies very similar to the Urban Assembly’s previously mentioned four—and indicate on a five-point scale how often the student engaged in that behavior over the past four weeks.. The DESSA “is entirely strength-based; meaning that the items query positive behaviors (e.g., get along with others) rather than maladaptive ones (e.g., annoy others).” 

“The Portal” — specifically a part of the portal the UA calls the “Program Matrix” — is what schools are using to organize their school activities (instructional, social emotional, behavioral) and aligning them to the aforementioned indicators of SEL. The Program Matrix then accomplishes a process the UA calls “Scan, Plan, and Act.” First, educators go into the Matrix and scan the activities that are happening at the school. Then they plan — who are the people in the school that can support a team to ensure the SEL is continuing to progress? 

Next is the “act” stage, which focuses on collaboration, implementation, and sustainability. Urban Assembly interns enter the data about how the school is performing on the SEL spectrum under certain categories, such as Leadership, Coordination, and Communication. This data can be turned into ongoing progress, improving the SEL model within the school. 

“In order to have sustainable SEL practice,” Knowles said, “schools need to implement it successfully, and implementation needs support.”

Educators are then expected to use the data gathered by the UA interns—along with their students’ individual DESSA scores—to conduct ongoing conversations with the children, focusing on strengths and opportunities for growth. 

Reece said this process adds up to a “holistic” educational experience for the students. 

Framing the Process

Knowles and Reece agreed that a surprising find of this project has been the pushback from educators. 

“SEL is really filling a gap that’s been missing in schools,” Knowles said. “But as the teachers are getting acclimated to the system, we’ve received some pushback.”

And it makes sense. In a country where educators are poorly paid, overworked, and underappreciated, adding more “administrative work” (e.g., entering data into the Program Matrix) seems, on the surface, like another box to check in a career where the boxes seem to keep coming — and taking away from the actual teaching.

But if you view it from a holistic educating narrative and approach, like Knowles, Reece, and the rest of the StongResilientNYC do, the SEL “box-checking” becomes an extremely incremental part of the teaching process. And the kicker, Knowles and Reece said, is that most educators are already doing this. They care about the wellbeing of their students. Growing up, math class is not an island; everything in the child’s life — in the classroom, the hallways, the playground, and so forth — is interwoven, developing the adolescent into who they will become down the road. Educators know this and want to see their students succeed at all levels; the Program Matrix merely puts some logistics behind the sentimentality.

“It’s about coming up with a way to make educators understand that this [SEL] is something they already do [and teach youth],” Knowles said. “And it may not be related to the subject they teach. It could be, how do you recover from a mistake? How do you collaborate and form friendships with your peers?” 

Additionally, Knowles noted that educators are people, too — people who can have their own personal struggles. The problems come when those struggles trickle down to the children in their life. This is why the “Adult SEL” mentioned earlier is paired with the adolescent SEL progress. 

“Adults need to set the example,” Knowles said.

Passing on the Knowledge

Knowles and Reece are two of 15 GSS community members currently working on the StrongResilientNYC project, in positions from managers to interns. That means they have the opportunity to work with and mentor current GSS MSW students completing their field placements at the UA. Reece and Knowles have both been GSS students working for the UA, so they have a unique opportunity to relate to those students and relay what they need to know.

“An internship at the Urban Assembly is not an experience a lot of people get. I learned a lot and it’s a great placement,” Reece said. “I’m glad to be back with the organization, and to have been a part of this program [StongResilientNYC] from being an intern during its implementation in one school to now its extension throughout the whole city.”

Ope Obasa headshot

Ope Obasa, GSS ’22

And the GSS MSW student interns have been just as appreciative.

They [Knowles and Reece] really encourage us to ask questions and trust the process. It’s very reassuring to know that they’ve both been in our shoes,” Ope Obasa, current GSS MSW student, said “Working as an SEL intern has brought my GSS MSW full circle. Most if not all of the work I’m doing as SEL intern informs and supports what I am learning presently in my courses, and has trained me to respond with flexibility and curiosity to the challenges that I might face in direct practice.”

“I really enjoyed having Danielle and Kandra in my corner! They did a fantastic job giving us the tools we needed to support our schools and us as individuals,” Shanice Peters, current MSW student, said. “Their experiences as former GSS students made our professional development meetings so enriching. It always felt great to have people who relate to the struggles of balancing fieldwork, courses, assignments, and the emotional toll of social work.”

Thinking back on her own MSW experience, Reece said she appreciated the ability to take advantage of both micro and macro skill sets within GSS’s program.

“I wanted to do macro work but I also valued the micro skillset,” she said. “Fordham gave me the opportunity to experience and learn both.” 

A Rewarding Experience

Knowles and Reece are passionate about this process, and have experienced the joy it can bring to both students and the adults who educate them.

“This is about children and adolescents getting the skills they need to be their best selves,” Knowles said, “and adults being vulnerable so that the youth can be better.” 

Reece recalled a 2019 conference presentation, in which she described her work with SEL in one school at the beginning of this program and her internship experience.

“We had a student panel of three students from the school talking about how SEL worked for them — people in the audience were crying,” Reece said. “The school was in its first year of implementing this program and it really transformed the school’s culture as a result. I just remember the folks being so responsive and celebrating us, but also our passion in showing them where we started, and that it’s a journey and we were excited to continue.”

And continue they have — from one school to a whole city — changing the landscape of adolescent education. 

Shanice Peters headshot

Shanice Peters, GSS ’22

The most rewarding part of my work is watching students grow in such a short period of time socially and emotionally,” Peters said. “Many students are struggling developmentally because of the impact the pandemic has had on their education and social skills. It was a pleasure to work with teachers and other school staff to implement SEL instruction. It was amazing to witness it be effective in helping students make better choices and feel well supported.”

I’ve built such strong and meaningful relationships with the students, and knowing that I can contribute to their social emotional learning journey brings me so much joy,” Obasa said. “We’re really going beyond instruction and skill acquisition — there’s something deeper happening here. It’s reflective and transformative.” 


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