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Social Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual

Social emotional learning, also known as “soft skills,” isn’t a new phenomenon. But it is rapidly gaining momentum nationally as educators, employers and even economists recognize the value of developing the whole individual, not just academic readiness. In this three-part series, we look at social emotional learning from a human interest standpoint, as a burgeoning local and national movement, and as an investment in the future through a grant from The Wallace Foundation awarded to Dallas ISD and Big Thought to create SEL implementation in the district.

Social Emotional Learning At Work

Here’s a story about emotional redemption: A teenager on probation enters the Creative Solutions 2016 summer program at Southern Methodist University. He’s withdrawn, non-verbal, can’t even make eye contact. He has closed off the world in his attempt to hide behind a broken soul.

Two weeks into his work with Creative Solutions, a partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department, SMU and Big Thought that teaches performing and visual arts to teen probates, proves cathartic. He suddenly felt comfortable enough to write down his emotions and recount past traumas through poetry.

“A couple more weeks later and he felt safe enough to share those with his mentors,” says Allison Caldwell, Youth Development Specialist at Big Thought. “During the very last week of the program, he decided that he wanted his words published in the poetry anthology and that his poem was worthy of sharing in front of an audience. His voice shook towards the beginning, but his confidence grew as he felt the support from his peers.”

Writing was the salve, the elixir that helped this teenager overcome depression. “His story is the perfect example of the beginning of a journey towards social emotional growth,” says Caldwell. “He reflected on his emotions and experiences, connected with others, and was beginning to learn how to manage his emotions.”

There you have social emotional learning at work, its transformative powers in full throttle. But what exactly is social emotional learning, and why has it become a national buzz phrase in education? According to CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, “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.”

Caldwell has spent more than five years applying social emotional learning to her work with Creative Solutions and DaVerse Lounge, the spoken word program for middle and high school students in partnership with Journeyman Ink.

“Social emotional skills exist on a continuum – you can never truly master a skill, rather you continue to deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships as you practice social and emotional competencies,” she says. “All of our programs at Big Thought are infused with opportunities for kids to develop SEL skills.”

Photo: Creative Solutions students triumph onstage after last summer’s “The Island of Lost Souls” performance at Southern Methodist University. Photo by Can Turkyilmaz @turk_studio.


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