The conflicted history & achievable future of social emotional learning

The conflicted history & achievable future of social emotional learning (feat. Lauren Kazee from Living S.L.O.W.)
Meet Lauren Kazee, one of Michigan’s leading experts on social emotional learning or “SEL,” who shares her personal definition of SEL, dives into the history of this concept, and offers advice for educators looking to prioritize their own social and emotional wellness and model this behavior for their students.

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For many of us adults, emotional awareness and mental health were not topics discussed either at school or at home while we were growing up.

But many in education are trying to shift this narrative for future generations. 

Why? Plenty of studies show that investing in “social emotional learning” can help schools decrease behavior referrals, boost academic achievement, and even save money in the long run. 

It’s slow and challenging work, but the results speak for themselves, most significantly, of course, when our students thrive both academically and personally.

This week on the BRIGHT podcast, I chat with Lauren Kazee, one of Michigan’s leading experts on social emotional learning, who:

  • Shares her personal definition of SEL
  • Dives into the conflicted history of this concept, and 
  • Offers advice for educators looking to prioritize their own social and emotional wellness and model this behavior for their students.

You can listen to our conversation using the audio player above or keep scrolling to read an edited version of the transcript!

Here’s a sneak peek at our conversation:

Edited transcript

Nikki: Thank you so much for joining me today, Lauren. It’s a pleasure to have you on the BRIGHT podcast. To get started,  I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. 

Lauren: I’m a social worker by trade, and I’ve been in the field of social work for 1,000 years. I started out doing outpatient therapy in Cook County in Chicago, working with kids in the foster care system in inner-city Chicago, which was a heartbreaking experience. Eventually, that experience led me to working in schools. When I moved into Michigan, I worked as a school social worker and also did outpatient therapy. 

So, I’ve been a community mental health provider and a school provider, which has positioned me in a unique way to do social emotional learning work and school mental health work at the state level, just because I’ve been on both sides, you know, on the outside of the school and inside the school and always working around student mental health. 

Nikki: Can you speak to what drew you to education? What problems did you see that you wanted to help solve?

Lauren: I don’t know if I was necessarily drawn to education, per se. I was more drawn to the well-being of kids. I went into social work just because I knew I wanted to make a difference. It felt like adults were always making decisions for students or youth, and I wanted to be able to empower them and to give them a voice and give them a champion. I wanted to feel like somebody was fighting for them and advocating for them. Then I had children, and my youngest needed that same advocacy as she was going through school, which prompted my interest in the school system to ensure that students succeed. 

Schools are so stressed and overwhelmed with all of the requirements from No Child Left Behind and all of the academic achievements and benchmarks that sometimes we lose sight of the person. We’re so busy trying to meet academic goals. Part of my passion is to help us to remember that we’re all human. The adults in the building need some TLC, and the kids in the building need TLC. I just try to help us all remember that we’re all people, and we all have feelings and emotions. It’s important not to lose sight of that as we’re trying to meet all of the academic requirements. I would say that’s what pushed me to do this work.

Nikki: That’s very powerful. Thank you for sharing. So, you are one of our state’s leaders in social emotional learning, and I was wondering if you could give us your definition of what “SEL” is and why it’s so important that schools prioritize this work?

Lauren: Great question. You know, there’s the standard “SEL” definition that’s nationally recognized, to which I subscribe. But on a more practical level, SEL is about establishing an environment that allows students to identify their emotions and regulate them. 

Maybe they’re feeling anxious about a test or a speech that they have to give in class. Or maybe there’s some peer activity that’s happening, or they’re worried about bullying on a playground. Whatever the circumstances are that students face day in and day out across the K-12 spectrum — and even in college, too — we want students to feel like they are in an environment that is positive and safe and supportive. We want to be able to take the time to identify their emotions, handle them in a healthy and constructive way. We want them to learn how to interact with other students, whether they have the same belief system or look different. 

It’s about helping them develop social interaction and communication skills and learn responsible decision-making skills. Then, all of this needs to be modeled by the adults in the school. Because it’s hard for us to demand what we don’t deliver. The adults need to exhibit these skills and model them for students while also allowing them to have the time to explore these different attributes themselves. 

Nikki: It seems intuitive to me that that would also improve academics. I can see how there might be pushback if you’re an administrator, for example, and you only have so many hours in the day. But when students can understand their emotions and make decisions, it makes sense that it would help bolster academics.

Lauren: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard. Schools have so many competing priorities, right? The pressure from above and all of the academic expectations to meet all of these different benchmarks. It’s hard. Often, schools don’t feel the freedom to slow down the pace to address some of these needs in the learning environment. However, there are schools in Michigan and across the country that have prioritized mental health and social emotional learning. 

Maybe it doesn’t flip a switch right away. It definitely takes some time to change the culture and the climate of the building. But in time, we’ve found that it does have an impact. It helps behavior referrals. It helps academic achievement. It helps students and their interpersonal skills. It helps with emotional distress. It can be a cost-saving to the school. There are so many benefits. It’s just hard to make that switch when you’ve got so many other competing priorities. But we’ll get there.

Nikki: I was wondering if we could talk about the history of SEL. When I was a student, I don’t remember this coming up often, or at least I’d never heard that term. So, either it wasn’t a priority, or maybe it wasn’t always perceived as the role of the school to fill those shoes. What changed, and how has SEL evolved over the past decade or two? 

Lauren: That’s a great question. You’re right. I’m significantly older than you, and I agree with you on this. These weren’t things that were talked about. But times have changed. I vividly remember when No Child Left Behind came on the scene and the reaction people had. I was a school social worker at the time, and the educators in the building had a very strong reaction to the requirements that needed to be met for graduation. I remember this shift of feeling like we were so focused on academic requirements that we started to miss that whole-child perspective. 

In third grade, I remember having a really emotional time because my dad had some health complications. My third-grade teacher pulled me aside to sit next to her desk and gave me crackers. She was so nurturing because she knew that I was really worried about my dad’s health. It was not a serious problem, but I didn’t know that in third grade. But I remember that moment vividly, and that’s an SEL practice right there. She was so much more in tune with how I was doing emotionally. She didn’t say, “Okay, Lauren, you need to keep going on your worksheet or keep reading.” Instead, she said, “Take the time that you need. Feel your feelings. Come sit by me. Eat some crackers.”

Ultimately, I think SEL is really just about good teaching and building those relationships with kids. It’s about engaging with students and realizing that they’re humans and that they have interests that go beyond learning about rocks, for example, or clouds. There are other things that make us tick as people. Whether we call it “SEL” or just “good teaching,” it is about building relationships and engaging with the students. So I think these examples happen a lot more than perhaps we realize. There are so many good educators out there who do take the time to tune into students and find out their interests. But I think the No Child Left Behind and the shift to meet all these requirements may have taken us away from that. 

Now, we’re starting to circle back. I think the silver lining of the pandemic is that we’re starting to notice these needs more. Of course, there were emotional needs before the pandemic, but they were exacerbated because of the pandemic. I’m hoping that we’ll start to shift our focus and maybe meet in the middle so that we’re still thinking about academic requirements and achievement, but we’re also remembering that we have whole children and humans that we’re working with at the same time. Of course, we can’t forget the adults either. They’re exhausted. We can’t forget them in the process.

Nikki:  I think you make an excellent point here about SEL being fundamentally about good teaching. Even when I reflect on the educators I’ve interviewed for this podcast, so many of them —  when asked about their favorite teacher or what brought them to teaching — speak about a teacher who did something as you described. Maybe they had a hard time in their life, but there was a teacher who knew they didn’t need to worry about algebra at that moment and instead just needed a safe place to sleep or someone to talk to. Or maybe several of their teachers rallied together to support them during their time of need. These are the kinds of things that they talk about when they talk about why they became a teacher. Not just the academics. So, I think you’re correct in saying that this isn’t new. It’s just we’re talking about it more explicitly now.

Lauren: Yeah. I think we’re using different language to describe it. You’re right. We’re being more explicit about it. We want to make sure that it’s part of the fabric of education. We don’t just focus on teaching to a test, as people often say, but that we really think about all of the elements that make us who we are and help us learn.

Nikki: There’s another thing I’m curious to hear your thoughts about. So, on the other hand, I think we must have a deeper awareness of topics like mental health now than we did before. You know, there’s more research and discussion, and maybe we’re just more open about it. Do you have any thoughts on how that has changed over time?

Lauren: It’s interesting because I just had a conversation with somebody about this yesterday, about the difference around the stigma of mental health and how that seems to be changing. You know, social media is a blessing and a curse, right? It can help promote things that don’t need to be promoted, but it can also help promote things that do. 

Celebrities, I think, have done a great job through this pandemic of saying, “I’ve had to go to therapy,” or “I needed to go talk to somebody about my feelings.” I do think it’s starting to shift as we see influencers talk about that more openly. It doesn’t have as much of a negative connotation. There’s much more openness and acceptance around needing outside help or talking about things that make us anxious or make us sad. I’m glad that we’re getting to that place in our society where it’s not so taboo to say, “Oh, I needed to go talk to somebody.” I think that helps.

I have hope that we’re moving in the right direction and normalizing that we’re all on a continuum somewhere. With the pandemic, everybody has had some kind of anxiety or some kind of adjustment. It could be to one degree or the other. There are a couple of my friends who have said, “Man, this has been great. I’ve loved being stuck at home.” But then, there are others from whom this isolation has made them not do okay and made them feel more insecure and unstable. We’re all on a continuum, and we all could use some support. It helps us to know that we’re not alone. 

Communities of color have been disproportionately affected. All of this social reckoning that we’ve had on top of a pandemic has also had its impact. I think the silver lining is that we’re much more aware and much more explicit about focusing on racial justice and equity. That’s one blessing that came out of some really difficult times as we face our truths as a society.  There’s a lot of trauma and anxiety, and it’s not just students experiencing it. Adults have felt it across the board. We are going into the fall, and we’ve got to ensure that we’ve got the right supports in place.

Across schools, we’ve seen numbers of suicide attempts increase exponentially throughout the pandemic, as well as levels of anxiety and depression. Parents are communicating the issues that their children are facing. We’ve got our work cut out for us. I mean, we did before, but it’s even greater now. We’ll be trying to figure out how to support schools as we move into a new school year.

Nikki: Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to have any sort of perfect answer or solution. Because if you did, I’m sure you’d be doing it. But I wonder if you have any hopes for what this will look like as we move forward? 

Lauren: In the state of Michigan, to our credit, Governor Whitmer has signed legislation that allocates millions of dollars to go to intermediate school districts (ISDs). That’s part of the contract work that I do for the state of Michigan is helping them figure out how those dollars are disseminated. So, these ISDs are now given funds to hire direct service providers to distribute support to the neediest districts or across their counties. 

There’s some good work happening at the state level. Dr. Rice, the state superintendent, is a huge proponent of children’s mental health supports and SEL. He’s convened a network that I help him with that meets once a month and is made up of stakeholders from around the state trying to figure out how we can expand SEL and children’s mental health resources, materials, and supports across the state. 

There’s some really good work that’s happening. People are focusing on SEL, and the timing is perfect to have these things in place for the fall. No, we don’t have all the answers. There’s a huge provider shortage, and there’s a huge teacher shortage. We definitely have gaps to fill. But the great thing is that our decision-makers at the top are thinking about these issues and prioritizing them. I’m hopeful. To answer your question about my hopes, I hope that we can figure out ways to change the education system to reprioritize some of these needs and support schools in this way.

Nikki: Many educators just began their summer breaks. Do you have any advice for educators who are looking to recharge and refill their batteries? Any self-care tips that you have for them?

Lauren: You know that’s my thing, right? Teacher self-care. Yes, please stay in education. We need teachers. I have done a couple of training sessions for intermediate school districts in the last six weeks, and I have some more slated for August to talk about some different strategies for those in the education field as they prioritize themselves, especially in the summer when it’s their time to recharge. 

Coming out of the last couple of years has been a whirlwind, to say the least, and education is such a stressful profession anyway. But what I try to encourage teachers to do is first of all — back to SEL, right? —  is to be self-aware, like, to think about what their needs are and take the time to identify them. 

So many times, those of us in this arena are kind of in default mode, where we think about everybody else’s needs ahead of our own. But that doesn’t bode well for us down the line because we just get so burnt out or exhausted. I try to give people permission that it’s okay to think about yourself and to think about your needs and to prioritize your wellness because we can’t pour from an empty cup. That’s what I say all the time. We have to fill our cups up first so that we have something to give to those around us. It’s about giving people permission, that is not selfish to say, “Oh, I have to draw some boundaries here. I have to take some time for myself.” It’s okay to say no. 

There are little things that people can do. Of course, there are things like vacation and yoga or retreats or reading books, and all of those things will always be helpful. But there are also small things that we can do throughout our day to prioritize ourselves, and sometimes it’s just learning to say no. It’s about saying, “I am not going to put myself through that” or “I don’t have the energy for that, so I’m going to say no or that I can only go for two hours instead of four.” It’s about setting boundaries and figuring out what fills your cup up, so you can focus on those things and know that it’s okay to do that.

Nikki: Especially for women, I think, it tends to feel that way. Many of us are trained not to say no from a pretty young age, so being reminded that it’s okay to say no is helpful.

Lauren: Right? That’s the thing. I think women are often socialized to take care of everybody else. I call it the caregiver curse. We tend to put everybody else first, and then it’s like, “Oh, wait, what about me?” as we’re dragging to bed or we’re sick or we’ve just worn ourselves out. Education is a female-dominated profession. None of this is to say that men don’t suffer from this, too, because I know several men who will just go go go and give, give, give, in general, it’s important for everyone to feel like they have this permission. Often we feel like it’s selfish, right? If I take care of myself, then that means I’m not taking care of anybody else. But that’s okay, sometimes. It’s okay for people to fend for themselves. 

Honestly, the new perspective that I’ve talked to educators about is that if we’re always doing for everybody else, then that doesn’t give that person — whether it’s a student or a family member or a friend — the opportunity to figure it out for themselves. A small example is if I always did my kids’ laundry, they would never learn to do their laundry. Now that they’re adults, they have to do their laundry. They’re not going to bring their laundry to my house (although they did in college). But now it’s like, “No, you have to do your own laundry.” 

That’s a small example, but if I always did it, they would never learn. It’s the same thing across life. If we’re always taking care and enabling or rescuing or inserting ourselves, then we may be jeopardizing other people from learning their own life lessons or having their own journey or their own evolution into something bigger and better. If we take away that opportunity for them, then they don’t get it for themselves. 

Nikki: Can you tell me about your favorite teacher and why they were your favorite?

Lauren: When you have a person, an educator, who is invested in you, it motivates you to learn. That’s how it was for me with my favorite teacher. She was my ninth-grade teacher, and she was so hard on me. There were red marks on my paper all the time in U.S. history. She’d tell me, “You can do better. Go back and start over. Give it another chance. 

And I hated that at first. But because she believed in me — because she pushed me and saw this potential in me —  my senior year of high school, I picked her for an elective because I thought, “I want her. She’s in my corner. She sees the good in me. She’s pushing me. She’s my champion.” Even there, you know, kids are motivated by somebody who’s in their corner, who sees the good in them, who believes in them. 

Research shows that when teachers instill hope and positivity, it helps kids do better academically and have better school success. There’s so much to be said about positive relationships and the impact that it has on students. That was the primary element of my favorite teacher. But it also applied to the favorite teachers I had for my children or who I’ve worked with across the state. There are some stellar people out who are working hard for the sake of kids, and I hope that we can support them and their efforts.

Nikki: Alright, so my next question is kind of a big one. I would like to hear what your vision for student learning is. The way I break that down is to ask: If it were up to you, Lauren, what would you want to see for every student?

Lauren: I think, ultimately, my vision is that schools are safe places that feel like a safe haven for everybody. Not just for students but also teachers. When they come into the building, they shouldn’t have to feel stressed or anxious or overwhelmed.

It’s about having an environment that feels welcoming to all stakeholders, all of the people in the school community. There are places like that out there. Again, it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to trust the process. But when you create that setting, people flourish. Students flourish. Educators flourish. People want to be there. Morale is high. I would love schools to be a byproduct of that. 

My little plug is for us to look at the research and put that into practice. One example is that schools start too early for secondary kids. There are years of research to show that we shouldn’t start school before the crack of dawn for teenagers. It’s proven, but yet we still start school before dawn. Even with Zoom school, we changed the way we did school, and it worked for some. Why do we now go back to our old bad habits?

To me, this is an opportunity for us to — like Dr. Rice said — go back to a new normal. Let’s figure out ways to have a new normal. I’m afraid that if we aren’t intentional, we will just go back to old bad habits that weren’t working for us before. If we can try to break that mold and follow the evidence, the research, and what works for both students and adults, then I think we’re going to be in a good place.

Nikki: Alright, last question. Are there any other words of advice or wisdom that you’d like to share with educators out there right now?

Lauren: This is what I would say. When I do trainings and consultation with districts, it can feel super overwhelming because it isn’t a quick fix. Everybody wants a quick fix. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way of education, especially when we’ve been doing things in a certain way for years. It takes time to turn the tide even a little bit. 

My words of advice are: If you are interested in pursuing SEL and focusing on student mental health, start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. It’s okay to start small. It’s okay to start in one classroom. It’s okay to look for those quick wins or that low-hanging fruit and to baby step it. Too often, we feel like we’ve got to run out of the gate at 60 miles per hour. Sure, maybe if everybody’s ready to roll, and that’s where you’re at. But if you can, start small. 

Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can, and it’s okay to take those baby steps as long as you’re moving in the right direction. You don’t have to run but just move in the right direction. Things will work out the way that they’re supposed to. That’s what I’ve figured out in my old age is that so many times, the universe is working on our behalf. If we’re trying to do the right thing, then things will often fall into place the way they’re supposed to. Just don’t lose sight. Don’t get overwhelmed. Start small, take steps in the right direction, and you’ll get there eventually.

Related resources 

See also: Lauren on the Mitch Albom Show!

Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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