Committee for Children Blog

We Are the Champions: Parent Support of SEL Programs

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As a parent of elementary-aged children, I’m always finding myself ruminating over issues that, pre-kids, I never knew existed. For example: the importance of whether and how our school rolls out new and sensitive programs about such hot topics as drugs and alcohol, puberty, or bullying prevention. In my carefree 20s and 30s, I never would have guessed I would spend days—months, even—thinking, writing, meeting, and agitating about such a bureaucratic-sounding topic. But, as with all things to do with parenting, here I am in the thick of it. Surprise! And not so surprisingly, it turns out that I, as a parent, can play an important role in supporting schools in these roll-outs.

Ahead of its time

Having been involved in education in one form or another my entire life, I tend to have strong feelings about how things would be done if I were the benevolent superintendent of the universe. I know it’s easy for me, the parent, to say how our local schools should serve the community’s children, and that the reality is almost always more complex than it seems. Budget, politics, educational mandates, and even personalities all play a role in how a program will be introduced and implemented. So I was intrigued to read an old Educational Leadership article (1997) that addresses most of the very same implementation issues still faced by schools today.

Titled “How to Launch a Social & Emotional Learning Program,” this article is by Maurice Elias, founding member of the leadership team for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), along with Linda Bruene-Butler, Lisa Blum, and Thomas Schuyler. The authors systematically and gently tear down the hypothetical resistance put forth by wary educators and families when a new program is being put in place. Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs, in particular, can be thorny, although we have made great strides in understanding and accepting their value since 1997. But schools still regularly confront the issues Elias et al. lay out, conveniently divided into two categories: attitudinal roadblocks and logistical roadblocks.

Roadblocks

Attitudinal roadblocks include the concern that SEL is a fad, that it’s not based on research, that it will steal time from academics, and that it won’t have any impact. Logistical roadblocks cover time constraints (fitting the program into already overcrowded teaching schedules), competing programs (such as drug and alcohol education or health classes), finding funding, and issues related to training teachers and staff. The authors respond succinctly and persuasively to each concern, providing excellent ammunition for champions of safe and supportive schools to use in their justification for SEL programs.

But how do these champions who happen to be parents—not educators—use that ammunition?

Showing up

My role as a parent-champion has been to show up: attend the meetings and information sessions the school sets up to introduce programs, call and email the principal and teachers, do my own research on the relevant issues, and reach out to other parents to encourage them to show up also. I’m sure the principal and teachers get a little tired of seeing the same faces at every meeting (two friends and I called ourselves the “Witches of Eastwick” last time we were the only—though very vocal—three parents at a school meeting), but I also know that they appreciate our passion and involvement. More importantly, we are making a difference. Whether we’re speaking out about our concerns over the school’s response to bullying issues or whether we are cheering the school on in its “puberty talk” program for the older grades, we are making our presence known and felt.

“Complicated and messy”

As I’ve been thinking about the fact that we champions must still find ways around the roadblocks discussed in the Educational Leadership article, I came across a recent opinion piece from the New York Times called “Teaching Is Not a Business.” Writer David L. Kirp (Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools) believes that it is “impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships.” He describes the work of school reformers who wish to use business solutions or technology to fix the problems of education as missing the point. What students need, he says, is adults who believe in them. He is referring here to teachers, but I would add (and I bet he would agree) that parents and caregivers need to be right in there, too. We all need to connect with one another—parents with teachers, principals with families, and children with other children.

“The most effective approaches [to improving the school experience] foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students,” Kirp says. He describes a number of schools and organizations that have made substantial improvements thanks in large part to “the presence…of social trust among students, teachers, parents and school leaders” (in the case of Chicago Public Schools) or “the forging of a relationship based on mutual respect and caring” (in the case of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America).

And if that isn’t justification enough for showing up, I don’t know what is.