In ninth grade I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I always remember Atticus Finch telling Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Those words made a deep impact on me because I was 15 years old, in a wheelchair, using an app on my iPad to communicate and typing everything with my nose. Most people have no idea of the challenges people like me face. They can’t climb into our skin, so the next best thing is to make sure we use tools like social and emotional learning (SEL) to teach our peers skills like empathy and social awareness.
If there’s a poster child for the benefits of SEL, then I am that person. My school district—Seminole County Public Schools in Florida—celebrated and respected differences and taught everyone the principles of SEL. I experienced an inclusive, welcoming learning environment that allowed me to thrive.
When I decided to run for president of my middle school, no one mocked or laughed at me. I was taken seriously. In fact, I was taken so seriously that I was elected school president, with a whopping 66% of the vote!
I’m lucky to have experienced the positive benefits of SEL. 50 years ago, people like me were hidden away—often sent to live in institutions—and definitely not allowed to be mainstreamed with typical students in public schools, in no small part because people didn’t understand kids with disabilities.
In the 1960s, disability advocates were part of the civil rights movement demanding equal treatment, access, and opportunity for people with disabilities. Our movement followed the same pattern as others: we had to challenge negative stereotypes, rally for change, and give voice to a community that deserved to be heard.
Activists called on the government to address the physical and social barriers facing the disability community. Parents took the lead. They firmly believed that an inclusive education would empower their children to actively participate in society alongside their peers, promoting opportunity for all.
By the 1970s, we had won legislation that guaranteed the right to education for students with disabilities. This led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. While the new laws ensured equal access and equal treatment, deep-rooted assumptions and stereotypical biases did not instantly go away. Acceptance on paper is not the same as acceptance in your community. We still have a lot of work to do. With the right support system and equitable tools like SEL, kids like me will gain the confidence to fulfill the promise of ADA and IDEA. We keep pushing the movement forward.
I know firsthand that SEL makes a big difference for students like me. But this isn’t about gaining an advantage for one set of kids. When schools provide the right environment, every student benefits.
Strong social and emotional skills benefit everyone academically, professionally, and socially. These skills make it easier to build positive relationships, solve problems and manage everyday challenges, and reach our goals. SEL helps kids and adults with everything from impulse control and emotion management to effective communication and responsible decision-making. It provides a foundation for positive, long-term effects on not just individuals, but entire communities.
Some people in my state have tried to turn SEL into a political issue. But teaching kindness and inclusivity is not meant to cause division, and hundreds of studies have confirmed what I know from personal experience: SEL has a clear positive impact on students, educators, and schools.
Like Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
JJ Holmes is a college freshman who plans to major in political science and advocate for marginalized communities.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.