My third-grade teacher encouraged me to be friends with Tara*. Even at a young age, we knew which of our classmates “had it good at home,” and who didn’t. Tara’s desk never stayed still, as her every move was forceful, almost angry. Tara was obviously in emotional distress. She wore the same red dress every day, or so it seemed. Her hair was tangled and unkempt. Tara was loud and rambunctious, trying to cope with massive hurts. No one wanted to be her friend, let alone get near her. Tara obviously lacked social skills. But my teacher thought it was a good idea for me to sit near her and be her friend; so, I tried. Tara had trouble paying attention and therefore, learning. One day, Tara was gone. I don’t know if she moved or was put in a different educational setting – no one told me; after all, I was just 9. Yet I’ve never forgotten her.
I “had it good at home”. My dad and mom first married, then lived together, then had children.1 My brother and I were deeply loved and cared for. We received the care and nurture of a stay-at-home mom and the hard-working provision of a loving father. I had the security of married, committed parents who selflessly and loving trained their children in the way they should go. My stable home was an anchor. This meant, although shy, I knew how to interact with others socially. It was modeled to me foremost by my parents, but also extended family. My stable home also meant I had a safe place to develop emotionally. All the extremes of emotions in growing up have room to work themselves out within the safe boundaries of a healthy family. The modeling of emotional regulation in my parents is where I learned emotional health.
No family is perfect! We all have problems to wrestle through, no matter how healthy our upbringing. However, this steady and reliable dynamic of family enabled me to attend school with a mind free to learn. I excelled in my third-grade class, whereas Tara had no family structure providing her with social and emotional anchors. The weight of her troubles made learning nearly impossible. There was no such thing as ‘social emotional learning’ back then. Would social emotional learning lessons have changed Tara’s life? Who was it that needed some lessons?
Why, then, are children the targets of social emotional learning (SEL)? A summary report by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2004 states, “Promotion of mental health can be achieved by effective public health and social interventions.”2 (SEL easily falls under the WHOs wide definition of mental health.) If I was hurting like Tara, my mom would’ve given me a big hug.
According to Bloomsburg University, “Social, emotional and behavioral skills develop in the context of social relationships and within school and classroom contexts, where children learn, apply and practice the skills of self-awareness, self-management, interpersonal awareness, relationship skills and decision-making.”3 The concept of SEL developing within the school setting is widely accepted, as is the concept that children are coming to school without these skills. My dad’s tender words would’ve filled my heart, if I’d been aching like Tara.
Do government/school policies, programs and interventions provide children the anchors of social and emotional well-being that a married, loving mother and father do? How would Tara’s life be . . . if she’d been my sister?
*Not her real name