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Social and emotional learning matters now more than ever

Stephanie J. Hull, President and CEO at Girls Inc. Posted by: Stephanie J. Hull, President and CEO at Girls Inc.

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More than a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all coping with a collective sense of loss, uncertainty, and lack of safety. If adults are having a difficult time processing their emotions, imagine how children are feeling. These emotions are even more complex for the millions of children in the U.S. who come from some of the most vulnerable demographics, like many of the girls we work with every day at Girls Inc. 

The situation we are facing makes it abundantly clear that we need to make it a priority to support the social and emotional wellbeing of all young people—both now and when they eventually return to school. Emotions matter when it comes to learning, and how young people feel and how they cope with those feelings has everything to do with their ability to succeed and lead. Lessons of all kinds are available online to fill some of the hours of the day and guard against learning loss, but academics alone are not enough to ensure kids thrive. As many adults today can attest, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on your work when you’re anxious, disconnected, or sad. 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been core to Girls Inc. programming for as long as we’ve been around. SEL is the process through which children (and adults) learn and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to understand and manage emotions; feel and show empathy for others; form and maintain positive, healthy relationships; and make responsible decisions. Social and emotional learning is for everyone. It is even more important for young people, who in many ways face the greatest challenges.

So what does social and emotional competency look like? There are five key SEL competencies to understand as we support the young people in our lives:

1. Self-Awareness

Young people must be able to accurately recognize their thoughts and emotions, and how they influence behavior. They should have a positive self image, understand their values (what matters most to them), and have a sense of personal power.

2. Self-Management

Young people should be able to regulate their behaviors, emotions and thoughts. They need to know how to manage stress, stay motivated, and move forward despite setbacks. They need to know how to set and achieve personal and academic goals.

3. Social Awareness

It’s crucial to understand the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others. Socially and emotionally competent young people respect and value others, including those who are different from them. They understand how they fit within the world and how they can make a difference.

4. Relationship Skills

With social and emotional competence comes the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Young people with these skills know how to communicate their needs, listen and respond to the needs of others. They can manage conflict and work well with others to reach a common goal.

5. Responsible Decision Making

Finally, socially and emotionally competent youth know how to assess situations and other people, in order to identify and solve problems. They can evaluate the consequences of various actions and understand short-term versus long-term rewards. Their decision making takes into account their personal wellbeing and that of others.

Meeting the needs of young people also means creating safe spaces and providing access to caring and supportive mentors. The current conditions have created a significant gap in social and emotional support for young people, and the lack of resources in this area is of great concern. Like some other youth serving organizations, Girls Inc. is currently finding new, innovative ways to support communities—and especially the girls who are the focus of our mission—during this unprecedented time. 

We can’t expect young people to push through on their own, especially at a time when the most competent among us are daunted by the unprecedented challenge we’re facing. Rather, we should check in regularly, talk with our young people openly, and let them know we’re here to work together with them to help them overcome these obstacles. When we combine academic education with SEL, we are giving young people the opportunity they deserve to learn and lead in life.