Socio-emotional learning - why is it important, and how do you do it?

To prepare Generation Z for dealing with the world, one needs to understand the reality in which they live. What is going on there, and how can it be helped? And what does that have to do with an oxygen mask on the plane?

Yael Shafrir 10:4117.10.21

For a long time now, our youth, Generation Z, have been experiencing mental difficulties. Depression and anxiety have long been considered epidemics of this generation. Still, recent numbers have led the Israeli Ministry of Education (and its counterparts around the world) to prioritize the mental needs of teens and place emotional-social learning (SEL) at the center of this year's assimilation programs, alongside the lower grades’ focus on reading/writing skills and the preparation for final exams in the upper grades. This decision is, of course, a good start, but the road to implementation is continuous and filled with challenges for the system, challenges that require fresh thinking, and perhaps also new task forces.


Yael Shafrir, CEO of ReShuffle. Photo: Uri Taub and Ronit Cohen Yael Shafrir, CEO of ReShuffle. Photo: Uri Taub and Ronit Cohen


First of all - what is SEL?

The Branco Weiss website (an Israeli institute responsible for developing innovative models for teaching and learning) defines what emotional-social learning is: “a process in which you acquire and use knowledge, skills, positions and capabilities allowing to cope with everyday challenges, develop to curious people, that are able to express their feelings and others’, interact positively, act upon internal motivation, show flexible thinking, consistency, emotional and behavioral balance, plus take responsible decisions.”


Trying to understand more, I looked at the report from which the definition (which in turn He took the purpose from an international organization called CASEL), which summarizes the work of an expert committee for fostering emotional-social learning in the education system. This work began in the summer of 2017 and ended in 2020, while producing an endless report that ended up leading to a dead-end.


"The national program will be based on the many materials available in the psychological consultancy department and other departments of the Ministry of Education, but because of the development of the guiding terminology and the committee's recommendations regarding socio-emotional learning and integration between the various departments, it will need to be re-examined."


The report fails to determine who is responsible for the task of social-emotional learning (educators? dedicated professional teachers?), does not refer to its impact on the youth who should benefit from the programs, no reference to technological tools that can help or critical situations that require such preparation. Bottom line - the report is mostly full of research work on topics that were not relevant in 2017 and certainly not relevant in 2020 (not to mention 2021 onwards). A look at the recommendations at the end of the report only sharpens the complex problem and the obstacles that block almost any solution.


Mapping Challenges and Thoughts on Solutions

So what?

First of all, let's look at the target audience for which programs of this kind are being built. Teenagers, middle school age, in 2021. What does their life look like? What are they busy with? What bores them completely? What are their goals? What prevents them from fulfilling them? What helps them? What is missing? What do they trust? What are they afraid of? What do they have in common, and how are they different from each other?


To answer these and other questions in a practical way that allows for solutions, I propose to divide the question into three main components:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Skills
  3. Emotions


1. Knowledge

In a world so laden with information, knowledge is not the problem. From reading a lot of research on the subject, in-depth conversations with teens, and deep acquaintance of content consumption habits and content consumption of Generation Z, the problem seems to be the motivation to expand specific knowledge and ability or willingness to go in-depth and develop insights, ideas, or applications on the acquired knowledge base. Young people exposed to such broad information, in part in very addictive formats, may have difficulty identifying their topics of interest and self-researching around those topics. The problem is not an attitude but overload; they get confused, become passive, sink into what comes to them instead of making an effort, looking for content that interests them, or inventing their own.


It is our job to create motivation for them to get out of this situation. How? Through the construction of personal choice, the invention of equally fascinating and addictive formats, the creation of inspiring and challenging content, and a clear definition of what stands on the other side of the effort. In the marketing world, this is called "value creation". To get Generation Z to put effort into its learning and self-development, they need to be able to answer the question "What's in it for me?" relatively easily. By the way - this is not due to indulgence. In a world with so much content, a person must prioritize and understandably they will prioritize higher content with a clear contribution to their life.


2. Skills

Crafted self-identity, well-developed communication, goal setting and other "soft skills" are processes that usually last until adulthood but begin at a young age. As part of the endless distraction that is humanity's lot in 2021, alongside helicopter parenting and an education system that’s stuck in the past - the acquisition of relevant skills has been rejected, both in terms of understanding what those skills are and the level of skills’ assimilation. Well, to help the next generation move towards its goals and cultivate a sense of its capability - one needs to get going soon.


Skills are abilities acquired while actively experimenting. There is no point in thinking and talking about skills, you need to define them and then practice them repeatedly. Just as the sculptor practices his drawing skills as part of the sculpting process and the businessman practices his negotiation skills as part of making a deal, life skills must be acquired as part of learning, doing, and completing processes. What should be included in these skills? In my opinion, when it comes to defining the set of abilities that a teenager needs to acquire, it is right to think again about his level of motivation. After quite a few years in which studying for him was perceived as irrelevant, one should focus on the most relevant. What tools will maximize their potential, help them choose and carry out their choices? These are the required skills.


3. Emotions

A generation in mental distress will have a hard time getting out of the comfort zone, challenging itself, evolving, or acknowledging the development it has made - that's pretty obvious. Another justified concern is that a generation that spends an average of 9 hours a day in front of a screen is probably addicted. As a result, they will probably also have difficulty tying relationships, seeing the other, developing emotional and social abilities like empathy and intimacy. This understanding of the general condition of Generation Z and the private condition of each of them is critical for improving learning. Therefore the decision to implement SEL is welcome. Indeed, the road there is winding. Hard to assume that many adolescents are interested in sharing their sincere feelings with adults from the educational establishment.


What can help? A deep and quality dialogue between them. Frameworks that connect different generations in the community. To bring hearts together, you should focus on creating the physical and pedagogical conditions for working together, replacing competitive formats with formats that produce teamwork and responsibility for each other, or even encouraging sincere self-exposure to cultivate trust and acceptance.


Food for Thought

In 2020, Karen Niamey, CEO of CASEL, updated the definition to SEL. Understanding that the long-awaited moment of broad assimilation had arrived, Niamey explained that social and emotional learning is integral to human education and development. This is the basis for the definitions cited in the report and the work plans I mentioned, and it is the most straightforward and significant working assumption. Defining work plans for SEL is not the direction, but the insight that all areas of learning need to undergo a change that includes the socio-emotional development within them. One more insight into the order of skill acquisition or what is most urgent - like the instruction on the plane that seeks to put the oxygen mask on yourself, before caring for another, here too - before teenagers adopt empathy and teamwork, they must reveal their own identity, so that their journey is authentic and compelling.


How do you translate these insights into a work plan?

Socio-emotional learning is not something you put on your schedule. It's not part of an amorphous program where you want to teach students how to learn - while most of them are not interested in anything that current learning has to offer anyway. Socio-emotional learning is a redefinition of learning goals and the way to reach them, a change from end to end of the content and formats for learning. It requires the transition from long-term thinking committees and endless reports, to experimentation and research that is carried out in motion. It is a path that will be paved from new daily doing, collaborations, and the ability to move fast. The positive side of this is that there is no longer a need to wait for this or that committee. The goal is clear and the working assumption is obvious - the past belongs in the past.


Yael Shafrir is co-founder and CEO of ReShuffle, a self-development platform for teenagers.