In a word: everything. In my years as a teacher and as a practitioner of social emotional learning, I have come to understand a simple truth in education, behavior, and discipline. Success in these fields depends on the creation of a community where people are heard, cared for, and everyone feels safe. In that safety, we can learn from mistakes, tackle community problems together, and hone “soft” skills that will be major determinants of success later in life. Without that community, no one feels responsible for each other, no one notices when another is hurting, and no one can help us learn the things that maybe we didn’t learn at home. Community is the major thread that runs through the world of social emotional learning, violence prevention, and restorative justice. School must be a microcosm for society – a safe place where children can understand how important and consequential their actions are.
Every instance of wrongdoing is an opportunity to bring that community closer and more importantly, sensitize children to the power of their actions. Witnessing, making mistakes, and taking part in the messy work of relationships and community are the ways to become sensitized, empathetic, and eventually compassionate. Making room for the complexity of our neighbor’s stories helps us walk a mile in their shoes, even if their life is nothing like our own. Realizing not only the negative potential we all have but also the positive is an incredibly important gift we owe our children.
In a world where we are connected, the “other” doesn’t feel so far away because the kid you were able to get to know in community circle in first grade might be a person marginalized in other contexts. To a person who has learned to seek out other people’s stories and other people’s truths, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, among others, have less of a hold. Further, children who have grown adept at the basic competencies (as defined by CASEL: the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning): self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making have a firm grasp on the notion that their choices matter. A person who is richly connected to others and to their own emotional landscape is much more likely to feel concern for someone who is suffering, whether that is a homeless person, a factory farmed animal, or a struggling peer.
We expect future generations to deal with a multitude of problems, everything from water pollution to child labor, and expect them to know that they can influence these situations for the better; yet, we haven’t ever shown them that they can make a difference in their own classrooms, neighborhoods, or communities. The first step in understanding how to contribute positively to the world is understanding who you are – your strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies – and why you matter to your community. If that first set of dots are never connected, it becomes really challenging to see that you have an important role to play in the global community, as well, especially because those who have an underdeveloped empathy response are less likely to even acknowledge that there are problems that need to be addressed in the first place.
Thankfully, many of us did in fact have teachers who helped us learn these critical skills. Sometimes they were parents, friends, or classroom teachers. We must work harder to ensure that current generations of children are allowed that same access to their own potential for empathy, compassion, and making a true difference in the world around them.