Relationships and Autonomy: Creeping into Social-Emotional Learning

David Streight (October 2019)

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) completed its first ever national conference October 4: the 2019 SEL Exchange. CASEL staff were so pumped by early ticket sales that before the conference began they declared it an annual, rather than a first-ever, event: the thousand spaces filled in only a few days.

The SEL Exchange proposed “to gather individuals committed to the comprehensive development and success of all students,” promising participants they would “learn with and from those at the frontiers of social and emotional learning research, policy, and practice.” The first of those statements was closer to the mark than the second, from my perspective, yet it was important to pull SEL devotees together.

There were two highlights for me. The first, via constant reminders (e.g., “It’s all about relationships.”) asserted that CASEL is institutionalizing the essential role played by relatedness/belonging in social, emotional, and moral growth. CASEL’s focus has always been on “competencies,” and rightly so. The social, emotional, and decision-making skills CASEL has spread the word about since its beginnings are critical to healthy development. Though relatedness has taken a back seat to competencies historically, it has continued to creep into CASEL literature, and’s pages, as time goes on. See, for but one example, CASEL’s writings about safe and supportive environments for learning (

But for me the real excitement came via my second highlight, from the number of speakers observing that social/emotional development cannot be fully successful without autonomy, without a sense of agency, without giving young people a voice. It was only in July of 2018 that CASEL began addressing the empowerment of “youth voice” as an “emerging” trend ( “Emerging” of course does not mean that self-determination—the sense of being able to act autonomously— was recently discovered; rather, it means that it was only recently acknowledged as important in development by the fastest branch of positive youth development. The good things they envision don’t happen unless human beings feel like they have an appropriate amount of “say” in their lives.

CASEL was not really ready for this event: the $800 registration fee for two days was far beyond what similar conferences tend to charge, too many topics were glossed over by numerous presenters, and the “conference app” had its flaws. Nevertheless, there is something quite positive to be said about weaving some autonomy and relatedness together with a sense of competency. It’s what we at Heart of Character build our foundations on.  It’s nice to see the word is spreading.