I love Brene Brown but…

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“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Brene Brown is one of the current thought leaders today.  Her work has helped many.  I noticed that she has a new curriculum for teachers, based on her work in the field of personal growth.  I have just downloaded  Brown’s new curriculum for primary students.  I applaud her work with adults and her desire to bring this work to children.   We all need more empathy and less shame in this world, two of the tenets of her work.

People often think of school as: daily lesson plans, curriculum, sitting on the rug,  It stands to reason that well-meaning adults would apply these same routines for social emotional learning.  We can, in fact, introduce the skills of critical thinking through academic means, and critical thinking is a part of solving social emotional challenges.

Brown, like many others, are on the wrong path here, in my humble opinion.  You see, many people believe that social emotional learning can be framed by a “small bites” cognitive curriculum. This goes for religious schools as well:  if we teach the “right way” to do things, kids will act with more civility. The approaches often used come from the place of imparting knowledge to kids that they will hopefully use in their daily lives.

The key skills needed to adapt to the presence of others in our world can only be mastered within open-ended exploration, guided by a caring adult.  Relationships, it turns out, matter most, as we attempt to foster the process that brings out our best “thinking and feeling” selves. The goal, after all, is not to perform well on a test to see how much they have learned.  The goal is to help children integrate the knowledge about their thinking/feeling selves into their daily lives. Integration comes through relationship, and the development of common experiences:  “Remember when….?  This is like that!”

The first dedicated social emotional curriculum  I experienced as a teacher long ago is now a fully government funded and well-respected program called “Second Steps.”  Each day the teacher brings a large photo for the children to discuss, anchoring a topic. Today the program comes with video as well.  The script for the teacher is written, step by step: teachers asks questions and the children answer, as they “cover” topics. such as:  empathy, listening to others, asking for what you need, self-talk, and following directions, examples taken from the kindergarten program.

The core of the problem is that social emotional learning is not a cognitive venture.  It is a learning formed through relationship.  Children learn social emotional skills through talking with a teacher who is compassionate and non-judgmental guide, a person in whom the children develop a deep degree of trust.   Children become able to share their own thinking and personal experiences as others do the same.

Helpful directions assist the teacher  in learning the skills of compassionate listening (also known as authentic listening) creating a safe space for children to feel free to share their experiences and ideas.  Teachers guide students  through a process of examining situations and predicaments while subtly integrating words like “empathy,” “shame,” and  “listening to others” as those topics naturally pop up.

A well-formed social emotional development program  offers the teacher  a guidebook of topics that might come up, discussion question formats for eliciting deep thinking,  suggestions for how to create a safe space, and directions of how to bring topics of discussions within the context of daily life of the classroom.

In the end as in the beginning, effective social emotional programs do not “front-load” kids with cognitive topics, but rather generate a well-prepared teacher: one who  listens to children with a great deal of skill.



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