Who among us doesn’t remember Stuart Smiley, Al Franken’s character from Saturday Night Live (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”) While Stuart may not have been able to help Michael Jordan develop a stronger sense of self-esteem, his persistent affirmations reflect very well the misunderstanding that educators have long held on how to help students be successful. For far too long, educators have worshipped at the altar of self-esteem theory, wrongly believing that if we can simply help students feel better about themselves, their reading, writing, and arithmetic will improve. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Florida State University professor Dr. Roy Baumeister recently completed a meta-analysis of more than 15,000 scientific studies and found that researchers “have failed to show that having high self-esteem does anything for you: It doesn’t improve your grades or career achievement, reduce alcohol usage, lower the incidence of violent behavior, or translate into higher estimates by others of a person’s intelligence, beauty, or virtue.”
It is not as if educators have not known this for a while now. A striking example is a 1994 study of the mathematical skills of students in eight different countries. Students in the United States ranked lowest in mathematical ability, while Korean students ranked highest. However, when asked to rate how good they believed they were in mathematics, American students ranked highest and Korean students ranked lowest. Researchers questioned whether “mathematical ability had an inverse relationship to mathematical accomplishment.”
The misunderstanding of what self-esteem is and how to help a child develop a positive self-image extends beyond the classroom. A few months ago, my daughter’s soccer team finished second in the league playoffs, and the girls received a beautiful two-foot tall trophy proclaiming them “Second Winners!” My daughter didn’t quite know how to respond. “What does Second Winner mean, Daddy?” I almost felt guilty saying, “It means that you lost. Your team came in second place. Now let’s talk about how hard you played and areas that you might be able to improve upon for next year.” While I sincerely hope that my daughter develops a positive and strong self-image, I am not convinced that never failing at anything is going to help.
John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as escaping old ones.” Fortunately, there is a seismic shift occurring in our profession as educators working in professional learning community schools (PLCs) are realizing that just focusing on a child’s self-esteem is not enough. With the same passion and intensity that teachers are bringing to helping students learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, in many PLCs teachers are working diligently to help ensure students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) as well.
One school, Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has been working with Daniel Goleman and CASEL (The Collaborative on Social and Emotional Learning). As the author of Emotional Intelligence (1995), Goleman proposed that while a student’s IQ has been the traditional bellwether of future success, achievement, and happiness, a more important measure is EQ—a person’s ability to understand oneself and others. Working closely with CASEL, Stevenson has adopted the following SEL objectives:
- Self-Awareness: Helps students identify and recognize their emotions, recognize strengths in themselves and others, and have a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence
- Self-Management: Aids students in controlling impulses, managing stress, staying persistent and motivated, and setting and achieving goals
- Social Awareness: Assists students in developing a sense of empathy, respect for others, and the ability to see and appreciate divergent points of view
- Relationship Skills: Helps students learn how to cooperate and collaborative with others, develop a willingness to seek and provide help when needed, and communicate effectively
- Responsible Decision Making: Enables students to develop the ability to evaluate their thoughts and actions, reflect on their behavior, and develop a sense of ethical responsibility
There are many educators who claim to be proponents of teaching students important SEL skills (i.e., “I don’t teach history, I teach students”), but it is a very difficult thing to do. While there may be more than one way to help develop a strong schoolwide SEL curriculum, working as a PLC, the teachers at Stevenson have begun to develop SEL targets in the same way they have created learning targets and assessments for their academic subject areas. The SEL committee has adopted a schoolwide SEL assessment to collect data on students’ SEL and progress at least once during each of their four years, and teachers regularly assess students in light of the course-specific SEL targets. SEL also plays a vital role in the RTI process, as student support teams examine SEL assessment data when considering supports and interventions for students who might be experiencing academic and/or behavioral problems.
Schools that function as PLCs are in a much stronger position to take on the challenges of creating a robust SEL curriculum and assessment system. Using the same skills of collective inquiry and action research, and a strong commitment to collaboration, teachers in a PLC can help students develop essential life skills in the same way that they learn core academic subjects. For those of us who are convinced that student learning and achievement cannot be solely defined by a grade point average and how well students performed on the state and national tests, working within a PLC to develop a strong SEL curriculum is an exciting and wonderful way to help students learn the essential life skills necessary for productive citizenship and meaningful relationships beyond the walls of our schools.
What do you think? Where is your school at on the SEL journey?