Morning Circles and Class Meetings are not SEL. The Difference Is Important

David Streight (August 2020)

Good things happen to kids, and good things happen to schools, when social-emotional learning is well implemented. Beneficial results come about in increased sensitivity to the needs of others, in more positive behavior, and in greater self-confidence and well-being in young people. Often, these translate to a better climate for learning and to increased academic achievement. Everyone wins.

There is however a difference between “SEL well implemented” and hodgepodge experiences incorrectly referred to as SEL. Given what could be gained—and the time that could be wasted—it’s important to note the difference.

SEL is about skill development leading to competence. If you are not teaching skills, you are not doing SEL. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence and Working With Emotional Intelligence, often credited as founding the field, pointed to four areas of competence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and the ability to manage relationships. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, widely recognized as representing SEL as a field) subsequently added a fifth area—ethical decision making—to Goleman’s four, and the five-sectioned CASEL Wheel of Competencies is ubiquitous today.

(Technically, the ethical decision making is neither an emotional nor a social skill area, and CASEL’s five areas are not exhaustive; for example, skills involved in thriving/psychological well-being are similarly recognized: e.g., developing a sense of purpose in life, growing in compassion, developing courage.)

In short, the message for educators is this: if you are not teaching skills—consciously selected skills, skills taught purposefully—then it’s not SEL. CASEL considers SEL to be taught effectively when skills are taught sequentially, when they are taught actively, when the teaching focuses on personal or social skills (in contrast to other kinds of skills), and when the skills in question are explicitely identified.

A second element of “SEL well implemented” concerns the nature and quality of relationships. Social-emotional learning is effective to the extent that  it takes place in a fabric of relationships characterized by warmth, by supportiveness, and by unconditional responsiveness to meeting needs. Children must feel like they belong where they are before they can feel competent in managing emotions and interacting socially. This is a prerequisite to the effective development of competence; CASEL itself sees establishing and maintaining positive relationships as integral to the very definition of social-emotional learning.

A third component in “SEL well-implemented” is one that is omnipresent but too often overlooked because it gets less flash in the press. It has to do with a sense of self-determination/autonomy, often seen in language stressing the importance of “voice,” choice, or empowerment. Children will not learn to use social skills, nor will they want to use social skills, unless they have some sense that their ideas, their voices, their actions are valued and important. They must feel like they have some say in the roles they play at school, and in life in general.

Self-direction is central to the definition. As in CASEL’s words, SEL is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals [italics mine], feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” If we are not helping children set goals—their own goals—we are not really “doing SEL” effectively. And children must achieve those goals by their own efforts. Only when they see themselves as the agents of their success can that sense of competence develop.

This point of students having a say in defining goals and being agents of their success is sometimes missed by educators in schools dedicated to PBIS (Schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports)—a system sometimes incorrectly likened to SEL. In most settings, PBIS concerns behaviors that adults select, that adults teach, that adults observe, and that adults correct when not performed appropriately. The only expectation of PBIS is that students perform behaviors as taught; PBIS is not concerned with skills. For SEL, on the other hand, the ultimate goal is that of students wanting to, and having the skills to, engage autonomously in such activities as solving relationship problems, navigating ethical situations, and conceiving of ways to make their community a better place.

The relevance of SEL to morning circles and class meetings can perhaps now be seen. It is entirely possible to gather a group of children in a circle of desks, or sitting criss-cross on the carpet around their teacher, without engaging in any of the skill building addressed above. I have seen circles in elementary schools where each student stated what he or she did over the weekend or what his or her favorite animal or movie was before passing the “talking stick” to the next child. The children have for the most part seemed content with the experience; but is a favorite animal or weekend activities social-emotional learning? In most cases, not. The answer of course depends in large part on whether the activity was devised as a step in teaching a specific skill, or only as a way to share something nice to start the day—occasionally billed as “a way to settle them, to get them regulated, before we start academics.”

Morning meetings can be planned to help students develop their voice, to express opinions that may not always be popular, to accept graciously the opinions of others; such gatherings can seek to enlist student ideas on ways to make the classroom a better place, to teach conflict resolution skills, and so forth. If activities focus on developing social or emotional skills, or if they focus specifically on developing better relationships, on strengthening the sense of “belonging,” or on gaining competence in setting and achieving goals, then these morning meetings contribute to social-emotional learning. If, on the other hand, they are not aimed at accomplishing goals like these, then they are something other than SEL.