Committee for Children Blog

Inspiring Social Change Through Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching kids empathy can change the way they view the world. Early learning and elementary children can learn foundational pro-social skills.

social emotional learning, SEL, grade school, social change

In the field of social-emotional learning (SEL), we strive to enhance the well-being of children, both in direct, immediate ways as well as through social change. The foundation laid by early social-emotional instruction has the potential to alter the course of a child’s life, and change that child’s view of the world. Who wouldn’t want to live in a kinder, more empathic society that prioritizes genuine communication and understands the value of relationships? When all members of a society appreciate that they are linked and interdependent, concepts of social inequalities and structural disparities are easier to grasp.

I joined Committee for Children earlier this year as an implementation specialist, having recently graduated with a master’s degree in sociology of education from New York University. I wrote my master’s thesis on creating SEL tools, and explored the power classrooms and schools have to create stronger, more empathic communities. In my studies, I noticed that in sociological discussions of empathy, there was little focus on children just starting school—an age when taught and modeled empathy can become ingrained for a lifetime. Early learning environments like preschools, for instance.

Building Empathy with a Developmental Lens

Empathy and perspective taking are advanced cognitive skills. Developmental psychologists have argued that building empathy requires effort and the process should be supported with more dedicated education resources. Another important element of empathic response is its link to prosocial behavior. Empathy can be what prompts people to take social action such as coming to the aid of a classmate in need, averting bullying behavior, or celebrating another’s success. Unlike sympathy, empathy doesn’t imply a shared experience. Research shows that people who empathize with a member of a stigmatized group are more likely to engage with and advocate for those groups prosocially.

Social empathy is a person’s ability to understand people who have had racially, culturally, politically, economically or otherwise different experiences. Social empathy helps us gain insight into institutional inequality by appreciating others’ experiences. These insights may prompt people to work toward social tolerance and societal change. Teaching and modeling social empathy can start in early learning settings.

Bringing this Perspective to Classrooms

As SEL gains momentum and attention, educators and policymakers should be mindful of the developmental research supporting social-emotional curricula. Early learners and young elementary schoolers learn about the world and their environment at an exponential rate. Just as younger children seem to be able to learn languages more quickly, they also pick up social-emotional skills readily when taught in a developmentally appropriate and reinforced way.

Schools, educators, parents, and community members all have the opportunity to teach and model empathy and social-emotional skills. The foundations laid by early SEL can eventually support more advanced conversations surrounding ethics, diversity, and social engagement. A proactive educational philosophy which instills a foundational sense of understanding and compassion will affect both educational experiences and social perceptions. Above all, empathy education supports our social connections and commonalities rather than our divisions and differences.