Editor’s note: This essay is part of The Seattle Times’ Student Voices program for youth writers. Meet the authors and read the other 2022 essays at st.news/studentvoices2022.
For most of my life, I believed that hardship was something to hide.
Living in an impoverished family, I grew up in a musty house with rotting wood, infested with rats and insects. Money would come and go, but as years went by it only seemed to do the latter. My family lived off food stamps and under-the-table wages, never knowing how long they would last. I was 5 when my brothers were removed to foster care, 7 when my father lost his job. Three years later our house was foreclosed; we were evicted. I was 10 when my family was three days from the streets.
My sense of value and safety unraveled at the seams as my home environment crumbled. Lacking an empathetic family to rely on, I felt isolated, unsupported and afraid. With no one to confide in and no space to express vulnerability, school only cemented my feelings. From a young age, I felt pressured to maintain a taxing front of normality at school while I silently withered from within. As vulnerability was scarcely revealed by others, I believed doing so was prohibited.
Had my schools successfully implemented a Social Emotional Learning curriculum, I would have acquired valuable skills to process my emotions and felt encouraged to seek help in a more compassionate environment. SEL teaches students how to manage emotions, set goals, establish healthy relationships and make decisions to set them up for success in school and in life.
Unfortunately, my school didn’t offer this curriculum.
Five days a week I was immersed in a classroom of students and educators who didn’t know what poverty entailed, or how mental illnesses, like depression, affects kids. Even as I experienced both, I lacked the vocabulary and understanding of my dismal circumstances to learn how to cope.
Once, in second grade, shortly after my father lost his job, family tensions became unbearable. Our TV and internet had been shut off, and my siblings and I had spent our days cooped up inside. I napped through the day to pass time, finding little joy in the hobbies I used to love. In addition to food stamps, we relied on our local food bank for many of our meals. Often receiving rancid foodstuffs, we’d pick through for their edible parts.
Spurred by a sense of inability, I lost engagement in class activities and began talking back to my second grade teacher. I still recall the first time I deviated from my compliant demeanor and made a sarcastic remark during her instruction. After class, she pulled me aside to talk with an unempathetic tone that to this day sends a chill down my spine: “Your behavior today was rude and disrespectful.” After scolding me, she strode off without an inquiry as to why I had acted the way I did, revealing not a hint of concern.
Later that year similar instances landed me in the school counselor’s office where adults tried to tell me what I felt with picture books and feeling charts that oversimplified the complexities of my experiences.
Never once was I simply asked if I was OK. Never once did I feel safe to honestly express my concerns or ask for the support I needed. Over time I became closed off, sitting through class dispassionately and withholding my misery from within. Throughout my childhood school treated me like a problem. Never once did it help me find a solution.
When students step inside educational institutions, we cannot leave our outside lives behind. Even if all classes were taught the same, placing equal expectations and standards for all, this would not account for the disparate experiences outside of school that foment the inequity from within.
If schools expect students to care about learning, then they must show care for our well-being. We need to abandon the thinking that one’s personal life is autonomous from their academic one. Researchers have documented how poverty and classroom engagement are interconnected.
There must be genuine, continual efforts on behalf of schools to explore methods of integrating Social Emotional Learning into school culture and awareness. SEL techniques can help students recognize their emotions, manage them, gain social awareness, make responsible decisions, and establish healthy relationships.
To start, teachers need thorough SEL training and need to regularly model and encourage students to use these skills. By normalizing communication and vulnerability, teachers can build rapport with students, assisting them in gaining comfort in doing the same.
One such positive SEL role model is my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Haines. Through establishing connections with each of her students and seeking to understand their identities, Mrs. Haines creates a nurturing environment where her students feel safe to express themselves and seek support.
Recently, our class has begun student-led conversations where my classmates and I anonymously pose questions through a form, and discuss them as a whole. Mrs. Haines participates in these conversations as well, sharing her honest opinions and reflecting on those of others which has encouraged us to reciprocate. In activities like these we address uncomfortable topics such as mental health, racism and misogyny in our community and the world at large. These talks have helped me gain comfortability and confidence in addressing pressing issues both inside and outside of the classroom and inspired me to seek solutions.
SEL practices also help educators address the unique schedules and struggles of each student. They can acknowledge and help youth who are caretaking for family members, working after-school jobs, and battling mental health disorders by accommodating them with one-on-one tutoring or deadline extensions.
To ensure implementation is going well, schools should regularly survey and discuss with students which SEL components are effective and where efforts should be targeted for districts, schools and even students themselves.
Unsuccessfully integrated and targeted SEL can be unproductive or harmful. Some of my early SEL experiences in school entailed oversimplified lessons that trivialized the complexity of mental health and real life conflicts. For years I believed my depression was mere sadness, that my anxiety was just nerves―that I was making something out of nothing. To prevent fomenting these views in students, schools must abandon the misguided idealism that SEL administered in any form is “a cure to all.”
Just as hardship hinders student lives, SEL, when collaboratively explored, promotes a means of vital advancement. What works in one school may not work at another. We mustn’t wait for a solution to arise, but instead collaboratively seek our own through implementing and revising new methods as school communities.
SEL skills are applicable to all facets of life: both the personal and the academic, to ourselves and the world. Above all, Social Emotional Learning is applicable in our schools.
It’s time we give SEL a chance.