CASEL Water Cooler

What My CASEL Colleagues Have to Say About Adult SEL

September 20, 2023
Heather Schwartz
Practice Specialist
What My CASEL Colleagues Have to Say About Adult SEL

Each fall, I find myself reflecting on my own experiences as a teacher. Recently, I recalled a particular test day. I’d worked hard to encourage my students. They shuffled into the computer lab with notes from me folded up in the palms of their hands: “You’ve got this!” “You’ve worked so hard this year!” “I believe in you!” 

Soon after they logged in, I heard a quiet thud. It was my student Ramon, kicking the table legs. Thud, thud, thud. I gave him a sympathetic smile and tilted my head towards the door. He met me in the hall. 

“What’s going on?” I asked. “You seem a little off today.” 

“My dad and I got into a fight,” he said. “He told me I needed to try hard today, that I don’t try enough.” I asked how he responded. “The bus came then,” Ramon answered. “I just got on it.” 

“What if you wrote him a letter saying the things you didn’t get to say?”

“I can try,” he said. Five minutes later he walked back into the lab and began his test. 

High-stakes testing stresses everyone out; the entire vibe of a school can change. But curiosity and agency helped me try to be the teacher I wanted to be—calm, empathic, solutions-oriented. I never asked Ramon what he wrote. I didn’t need to. As he sat down and began to work, it was clear that he had found what he needed to persevere. 

As I thought about this episode, especially as we prepare for the 2023 SEL Exchange, Leaders as Learners: Building the Village Our Children Need, I asked around to hear from other CASEL staff about the moments they saw the importance of adult SEL. 

Here’s what I heard:

I watched a friend of mine apologize to her child when she felt she’d ‘gotten it wrong’ in responding to an incident involving her child. She expressed regret about how she handled the situation and invited her child to reflect on how it made them feel. Her approach communicated that, as people, we can’t be perfect, but that we can maintain close relationships when we make mistakes and try to repair harm.

—Rafiqah Mustafaa, Assistant Director of Learning and Improvement

As a middle school teacher, I focused on self-management: managing my emotional responses to the challenging behaviors of a few students. It left me feeling drained and disappointed. As I learned, I leaned more into other competencies: Relationship skills helped me build a better classroom climate. Responsible decision-making helped me respond to challenges with a long-term goal in mind, not to score a quick win. Social awareness helped me understand what my students were experiencing, and self-awareness helped me see myself more clearly: my needs, biases, emotional triggers, and the strengths I could build on.

—Claire Schu, Senior Manager of Implementation Support

In my neighborhood, I’ve had lots of opportunities to witness great parenting that leans into adult SEL. One time, a little buddy from next door, about two years old, took a bad spill. His mother did the usual mom things, inspecting his scraped knee, cradling him in her arms, but what really impressed me was the way she modeled how to honor his emotions. Rather than telling him ‘you’re okay’ or ‘shake it off,’ she held him a bit longer. ‘That was scary, wasn’t it?’ she asked. ‘Sometimes scary things happen.’ They snuggled until he felt better.

Kay Daly, Communications Specialist

In my first two years of teaching, I had an amazing assistant principal who became a mentor. She prioritized building relationships, and realized the importance of building genuine connections with staff. Her feedback was constructive and never punitive. I felt secure and safe to learn and grow under her wing and was a better teacher because of that. She eventually moved to the district office, leading technology development. I was the first to sign up for any program she piloted, and developed expertise in Google Classroom and other online platforms, which opened new doors for me!”

—Megan Smith, Executive Assistant

I loved teaching, but I could have better managed the stress and overwhelm that comes with managing a class of 20+ students, not to mention lesson planning, paperwork, observations, and communications with parents and administrators. When I left the classroom to work for an SEL program, I realized how powerful adult SEL would have been for me. It would have given me a better understanding of myself and how to manage my emotions and stress, along with an understanding of my students, their behaviors, and how to respond to them. Ultimately, I might not have experienced burnout and left the classroom. Now, I use adult SEL daily as a parent, and I help spread the word about why it’s essential for both students and educators.

—Ashley Cullins, SEL Editorial Manager

Once, when my district was taking a hard look at our discipline metrics, practices, and policies, I was leading a reflection circle of educators. One dean in a school shared, ‘If my adults aren’t well, we cannot truly be there to support the behavior of our students as a learning opportunity. We’ve got to take care of the adults first.’ This comment rang so true to me, and while our team knew this was important in our process, we had never stated it so clearly. This insight continues to motivate my focus on educator healing and wellness today.

—Karen VanAusdal, Vice President of Practice

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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