David Adams is a real-life social emotional learning superhero.
With over 15 years in the field, David’s incredible SEL journey includes working with Yale to take the concept of emotional intelligence to UK schools, shaping District 75’s SEL approach in NYC, and sitting on the Aspen Institute’s Council of Distinguished Educators.
And he hasn’t stopped there. David now works as Director of SEL for the Urban Assembly, sits on CASEL’s Board of Directors, and acts as a subject matter expert for public education in the US Army Reserve—plus he’s just published an awesome new book.
That’s right. When it comes to SEL, David sure knows how to flex his superpowers.
We couldn’t resist catching up to talk about how SEL impacts the world, what ECE leaders need to in order to focus on social-emotional development, and what the moon-landing has to do with your SEL journey. 👨🏽🚀
Check it out!
· The real-world impact of SEL
· How to bring social emotional learning into your ECE center
· Play + relationships + boundaries = SEL success in early childhood
· Why social emotional learning is key to a more certain future
A whopping 93% of US school principals believe SEL can help students’ learning—and yet only 25% actually have SEL programs in place.
For David, the lack of tangible social emotional learning is a societal problem that needs addressing yesterday.
“If you look at [the coronavirus crisis], you have a clear sense of how our society needs to work together. You need to solve the problems of: how do we build a vaccine? And how do you make people stay home? One of these problems is a technical problem: we need a vaccine because of the virus. The other problem is a people problem: how do I create an understanding of my populace, so I can get them to do the things they need to do to protect our society? Right now, the main thing we focus on in schools is the former.”
And it’s not just the global pandemic that’s brought the need for SEL into the spotlight.
“If you look at what's happening in the US right now in terms of policing, the question is: do we all belong to this social fabric? And how do we know that? It's not a math and science question. There's no mathematical way to get out of that. That's just people sitting around having conversations around what it means to be American… If we’re going to be a multicultural society, we need young people who can hear and understand the perspective of others so that we can create and navigate a common good.”
And for David, that can only happen when schools embrace SEL.
“If our school systems are going to be relevant in 2020, in 2030 and 2050, in terms of the problems that our societies are facing, they need to be concerned about social-emotional development and the social fabric of our nation.”
Social emotional learning is about more than teaching a set of skills. It’s a way of life that can change the world.
“Schools are the developmental foundations for how young people approach problem-solving in the real world. If we can help our young people really think through how they relate to themselves and to others, and then apply that knowledge to solving problems, we're going to create a society that understands how to improve itself over time,” says David.
So, how can SEL work for your ECE center?
According to David, there are three broad steps to implementing social emotional learning in your ECE center or school.
“The idea is that every school is already doing social emotional learning because every interaction impacts the social-emotional development of a young person,” explains David.
So, the first step is to figure out which of your center’s instructional practices, behavioral supports, social-emotional supports and extracurricular activities already impact children’s social-emotional development.
“We frame things in ways that allow educators to be honored for the work they are doing in the space, and then we challenge them to do it with a quality that allows students to be conscious of the skills they're developing, so later they can deploy them to meet their own goals,” says David.
“[Through the framing process], we help leaders identify what high quality social emotional learning could look like in their school or their district,” says David.
The key is to look at the school mission and vision.
“Most school missions and visions talk about producing citizens who can solve problems and improve the world, but when we take a step back and say, “what does that actually look like in your school?” [and] “Where are the inputs that allow a student to develop these problem-solving skills?” that allows us to create a gap between what a school says they're doing or what they want to do, and what they're actually doing.”
Finally, it’s time to take action.
This is where you create a culture of SEL through assessments and feedback, and then put systems in place to support the change.
“We coach [schools] in terms of thinking through: how do we actually implement that? How do we create systems for sustainability? How do we create, manage and support the change function? [Our aim is] that staff understand the importance of social emotional learning, students are brought into the ideas of social-emotional development, and there are feedback mechanisms for both staff, students and principals to improve their work over time.”
It’s no secret that play is an important part of learning.
But when it comes to early childhood, David believes children need a combination of play, strong relationships and boundaries.
“The research says students learn from play; then they learn how to manage their emotions through the boundaries that adults set, and their interactions with peers; and then those [self-management skills promote] the ability to put attention onto academic content later.”
Let’s look to the animal world to break this down. 🐾
“When older cheetahs want to teach young cheetahs how to hunt, they do it by hunting, modeling what it looks like and having the cubs watch it. The cubs think, ‘This is important for me to learn because I have a relationship with this cheetah. She feeds me. I should pay attention because eventually I'm going to have to replicate this… Our young people do the exact same thing.”
Here are some actionable ways to prioritize play, relationships and boundary-setting in an ECE environment:
At the root of SEL for the adult is the ability to support and guide children, rather than forcing them into a learning situation that doesn’t work for them.
“Learning is this beautiful, active thing in which students are manipulating concepts, and using those manipulations to come up with new understandings… We can do it in so many ways and that's what we need to focus on. We need to focus on the ways that students learn and how do we map our teaching onto those ways, rather than mapping our students onto our teaching.”
We’re living in uncertain times—but for David, ECE centers and schools hold the answer.
“Our schools don't just exist to make sure students can read, our schools are extensions of society itself… I would teach SEL even if it had no impact on learning whatsoever. These concepts are important enough that if there were no academic gains from social emotional learning, I still think it'd be one of the most important things schools do.”
The reason David’s so sure is because he knows how great the results can be.
“If we were to get every school in this country organized around the principles of social, emotional development, students would [be able to]… 1) Relate to themselves effectively. 2) Relate to others effectively. And 3) Solve problems. That is the outcome of a successful social-emotional education.”
The journey is far from over, but the future is bright—as long as the education community is willing to give this a real try.
“Kennedy said we were going to the moon, and it wasn't that we didn't go to the moon 10 years before because our scientists couldn’t figure it out, it’s because we didn't have the motivation to do it. I would argue that the greatest achievements of humankind were not just because we had the brains but because we had the will. And that's what I think about in terms of how we improve and move forward in our society. How do we empower our young people to develop these skills and this way of thinking, so we can organize our society in ways that make us more successful moving forward?”
For David, the answer is simple: we do it as a community.
“I envision a world in which we educate people to actually solve problems. And a social, emotional education has a lot to do with that ability… Educators have a change to make and we can make that change together.”