SEL to Me

I’m a CASEL Leader. But my Adult SEL “Aha” Moment Came as a Parent.

September 15, 2023
Melissa Schlinger
Vice President of Innovations and Partnerships
I’m a CASEL Leader. But my Adult SEL “Aha” Moment Came as a Parent.

On November 7-9, 2023, CASEL will host its first in-person convening of the SEL Exchange since before COVID. As we reflected on the conference theme, Leaders as Learners: Building the Village Our Children Need, we asked CASEL staff to share a moment when they truly experienced the power of adult SEL. This response came from Melissa Schlinger, vice president of innovations and partnerships.

As a leader at CASEL, it’s not surprising I’m an advocate of social and emotional learning (SEL) for adults. But this insight was really “brought home” not solely through my professional work, but rather when I intentionally engaged in adult SEL as a parent. 

The “aha” moment came during my first year at CASEL. One of my first tasks was to attend a training led by Marc Brackett, an important voice in the SEL field. 

In his training, Marc advocated for the importance of understanding our emotions. In his words, we all—children and adults alike—must be “emotion scientists,” striving to recognize and understand our emotions, instead of being “emotion judges,” who attach value judgments to what we feel. 

One of the strategies he highlighted was the opportunity to stop during heated moments and recognize the “meta moment.” He included Viktor Frankl’s famous quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Take that pause, he told us. Focus on the response you want to give. Think about your best self, and how you’d want that person to act in that moment. It’s a small breather, but a powerful one, when you make an intentional choice rather than flying  off the handle.

After the training, I went straight to my kids’ school in hopes of a welcome surprise when I picked them up from after-school care a little early. I have twins, a boy and a girl, and they were around seven years old at the time. I was so excited to get to see them earlier than usual. Maybe we’d go for ice cream or find some other way to enjoy this “bonus” time together. 

The greeting I received wasn’t what I expected. My daughter was excited, but my son … he wasn’t on board. More than that, he was angry, screaming and stomping away. He said he was in the middle of playing with friends and didn’t want to leave.

I was pretty deflated, maybe even a little angry that I was taking this time and he didn’t even appreciate it. Worse, he was angry and I thought disrespectful towards me in how he behaved when I showed up. I wanted to yell at him, “Just get in the car!” and also tell him, “I was planning on ice cream but not anymore!” But thinking about the adult SEL training I’d just been to, I decided I wasn’t going to react or say anything about it just then. I would take my meta moment. I would wait until we got home and I had a chance to calm down and think about how I wanted to address this.

Once we were home, I sat with him on the couch and touched him on the arm to make a connection and communicate warmth. I said, “I understand it was frustrating that I showed up unexpectedly while you were in the middle of a game.”

“I didn’t even know you were coming!” he answered, distressed. 

Putting on my emotion scientist hat, I asked, “Why do you think you’re so upset about this?” 

Then, he started bawling. “I know my teacher called you today, and I thought you were coming early because I was in trouble.” Of course, I hadn’t even gotten that call because I was in the training that day. I realized that his reaction was not really about me coming early. He had something else in his head that was really upsetting him. He was lashing out because he was scared and nervous.

Knowing this, I was able to calmly talk with him and hear about what happened at school, so that I knew what I might expect when I listened to that voice mail. In the end, it was a really productive conversation about what happened at school.

So my big takeaway was that his anger and frustration when I picked him up wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about coming early, or him not wanting to spend time with me. It was about something totally different. Had I not stopped to calm down, the situation would have escalated, and I may have never understood what it was truly about because I hadn’t taken the time to be curious and supportive even in the face of his disrespectful behavior. It was triggered behavior.

This episode was such an immediate application of all I had learned in the adult SEL session, and the lesson has stuck with me to this day. I still look for opportunities to take that meta moment, to be curious, to express warmth, to be an “emotion scientist” so I can understand what’s behind the behavior rather than just reacting to it. It’s better for adults, and it’s better for the kids in our lives, and it helps build trust in our relationships.

Eager to learn more about adult SEL? Join us at the 2023 SEL Exchange, Leaders as Learners: Building the Village Our Children Need. This year’s theme recognizes that every adult in a young person’s life—family members, educators, coaches, mentors—influences their social, emotional, and academic development.

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Caroline Chase

This is a beautiful example of adult SEL in action. Melissa’s pause for the “meta moment” is what I had to do on a daily basis in my self-contained classroom for middle school students with emotional disturbance. The first thing I had to learn was that their behavior was rarely, if ever, about me. Approaching a situation calmly and with curiosity rather than judgement is paramount in building relationships. This is true not only between adults and children, but also between adults. Thanks, Melissa, for telling this story to help all of us reflect on our own adult SEL skill sets.

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Shan Li

Thank you Melissa for sharing your personal experience. It’s so true that many times we took it personal when how the other person reacted wasn’t really about us. Recognizing the meta moment and putting on the emotion scientist hat is so important for us as a parent and an educator.
I’m a high school counselor at an international school in Shanghai, China, and I’m learning social emotional to better support my students and parents.

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