Connecting Social and Emotional Learning with Sexual Health
I am Ruthie Kolb, the new Training Manager at Colorado Youth Matter, and I happy to be joining the team. In my previous career as a high school math teacher, I was once asked at a conference with fellow teachers to brainstorm 5 characteristics we hope students, once they exit our classrooms and the educational system, have to begin adulthood. We responded with strong character attributes, not academic achievements. Sure, we wanted our students to remember what we taught them – to use proper grammar in their cover letters and apply arithmetic to their finances. But in our wildest dreams, we were teaching them something more, something illusive, a little je ne sais quoi. My dream list looked like this:
In fact, despite the difficulties facing researchers to define and measure intangibles, a study at the Virginia Commonwealth University found in 2010 that emotional intelligence was a greater predictor of a person’s working success than their IQ. Formerly, social and emotional intelligences were considered unteachable personality characteristics. People were either born with umpf, people skills, perseverance, and responsibility or they weren’t.
But what if these were not set-in-stone characteristics, but rather trainable skills? What if we could write curricula in such a way that we were directly and indirectly teaching these personal attributes along with reading, writing, and arithmetic? What if, by mixing person-building and academic coursework, the students who formerly struggled academically began improving in all areas of their lives?
What is Social and Emotional Learning?
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the educational process through which students are taught the “knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to identify and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make positive decisions.”
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) breaks down SEL into 5 Core Competencies: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.
Why is SEL becoming so popular?
Movements are being made in districts all over the country and even internationally toward implementing SEL programs, and research has begun to show the growth that can occur when schools take the huge leap of prioritizing whole-student development along with academic learning.
Several districts with students of high-risk have decided to replace wishing their students had the resilience, responsibility, emotional stability, and decision-making skills to break their cycle of poverty with direct instruction in these skills. The most notable districts who have taken on full SEL evidence-based programs include: Cleveland, OH; Chicago, IL; Nashville, TN; Oakland, CA; Sacremento, CA; Washoe County, NV; Austin, TX; and Anchorage, AL.
These districts have reported great success in decreasing student’s stress levels, negative behaviors, and experiences of bullying while increasing positive peer relationships and feelings about school. Additionally, they found that while building these soft skills, the students’ academic performances improved.
Furthermore, as Vicki Zakrzewski at UC Berkeley noted, a focus on SEL would create a subtle but significant paradigm shift for the US educational system since it takes the focus off of creating competitive, academically achieving individuals and puts value on a system that fosters mentally, socially, and emotionally healthy individuals – people who are compassionate, focused, and caring in all that they do.
Yes, but what does SEL have to do with sexual health?
Ideally, sexual health education (as opposed to sex education) goes beyond the basic information of anatomy, STIs, and condom demonstrations—it is an avenue of students knowing themselves, their emotions, their self-worth, and their values and goals while learning to communicate and make decisions with someone else. Sexual health education is heavily rooted in the core components of SEL.
Get Real, an evidence-based sexual health curriculum developed by Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is explicitly rooted in SEL skills while several other curricula, such as FLASH out of Seattle and King County School District in Washington or Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program, have a focus on whole-person development that is reminiscent of the SEL framework.
When analyzing a curriculum for its social and emotional components, effective SEL curricula have the following key characteristics:
- Sequenced activities that lead in a coordinated and connected way to skills
- Active forms of learning
- A focus on developing one or more social skills
- Explicit targeting of specific skills
Like all educational trends, however, be warned – not all curriculum CLAIMING SEL instruction is created equally. For example, the organization Amplify Youth Development makes the claim that they are an SEL sex ed curriculum; however, a glance at their website will quickly tell you that they are an abstinence-only until marriage organization with somewhat manipulative messages. Don’t jump blindly onto the SEL bandwagon, do some research to ensure that the curriculum you are choosing is focused on attributes important to the youth that you work with.