An early pioneer of SEL
A conversation with Timothy Shriver, an early pioneer of social-emotional learning in the classroom.
This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Timothy Shriver is one in a growing choir campaigning for kinder discourse in the United States.
As Chairman of Special Olympics since 1996 and co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Shriver has spent his life championing the idea of dignity. His latest venture is an organization called UNITE. The website for UNITE urges viewers to “join millions of Americans in rejecting us versus them thinking and standing together for a common purpose.”
While the message seems generally appealing, the actual achievement of unity and respectful dissent in American politics and culture seems like a mission from a bygone era.
Face masks, critical race theory, and books exploring LGBTQ issues have all become hot spots in recent years.
Even social and emotional learning, an approach Shriver helped implement in teaching public schools in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1980s, has become a talking point in the culture wars between school and classroom. Vox described opposition to the approach as “conservatives’ war on emotion in the classroom”.
Social-emotional learning curricula were being adopted by schools across the country, and the approach was widely seen as apolitical as conservative states like Wyoming introduced tools to stem a growing child mental health crisis. But that has changed. Some parents with children in Salt Lake County’s Canyons School District successfully applied for removal of the emotional health program after finding a link to a sex and dating website in a class session. In Florida, which initially welcomed social-emotional learning programs, political leaders are turning their backs on the strategy, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the Utah Republican Convention on Saturday, has led the state’s prosecution.
Undeterred by this, Shriver is now working to teach adults to have the kind of civil conversations we want children to have in their schools. “Our country today looks like a dysfunctional high school,” Shriver said. “People working in opposition, people checking out, people who have become disengaged from the content that the culture offers.” He believes the country is suffering from a relationship crisis and a big part of the problem is that the Americans no longer trust each other.
As one of several “Impact Scholars” at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Shriver visited Utah this week to speak with local leaders, educators and students. The son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and former Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver will deliver the commencement speech at the U. of U. on May 4th. The Tribune interviewed Shriver about his commitment to social-emotional learning and his latest mission to help adults empathize and “exercise dignity.”
The following interview has been abridged and edited for length and clarity.
What is social-emotional learning?
Social-emotional learning seeks to instill the skills, attitudes, and values that optimize child development. This may sound too technical, but we teach social skills and emotional skills as well as attitudes and values that help children to develop positively: the ability to understand social contexts, make good decisions and express agency.
Why did you get involved with SEL?
We have seen how many challenges children face in schools. Children who had behavior problems, who chose to drop out of school, and had unwanted pregnancies. We looked at what is going on beneath the surface and we found that there was a lack of social support and trust in the schools. Children do not feel seen, heard or understood at school. Trust, belonging, purpose and meaning needed discipline. We need math, English and science, but we also need the teaching of social and emotional development. And so we started from asking, How can we stop this problematic behavior? How do we discipline children?’ On “How do we actually strengthen children so that they don’t get into trouble? Instead of “How do we catch school dropouts?” to “How do we strengthen trust in school so that children do not drop out voluntarily?”.
You were a teacher at the New Haven Public Schools back in the 1980s?
I was a social studies teacher and taught US history to 10th and 11th graders. And before that I taught the ninth graders some English. [School leaders] saw these underlying issues and selected myself and a handful of other teachers from other schools to start collaborating to see what we can do to prevent issues from reoccurring and move to primary prevention. We found a group of scientists who were interested in primary prevention and then we started a small collaboration of people who were all thinking about it and we decided to call it the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning, to break the head and the heart bring the school back together.
How would a teacher applying social and emotional learning principles respond to a child?
The most important thing in conflict is calm. Stop, calm down and think before you act. Talented teachers trained in this work can help [students] take a minute
The second part of this is usually dialogue skills. What really happened? what did you feel What did you want to achieve? What went wrong?
If you broke my pencil, can you say you’re sorry? Can you tell you will probably try to get another pencil to replace it? And often, within minutes, the conflict is resolved and relationships healed.
What do you think of the politicization of social-emotional learning?
It’s not a political thing. Teaching kids to calm down is not a Republican idea. Penicillin is neither democratic nor republican. Penicillin heals people when they are sick – being able to calm down heals you when you are stressed.
Dozens and dozens of countries are now interested in this area. I think they’re interested because we’ve tried to build the field without polemics, without ideology, based on evidence, and we’ve tried to do it in a way that respects teachers and families. I was trained by [James] comer His whole philosophy was to empower parents to take an active role in their children’s education. The key is to involve the parents. The more parents participate, the better. I don’t care if they disagree or not, I want them to be included. Let’s have a conversation. Disagreements belong to America. It’s part of democracy, it’s healthy. I just want it so that we can maximize the chances that we get solutions that are good for kids.
How will you change the discourse with your organization UNITE?
We’re just trying to show people how contempt has infiltrated their lives. Most people are not aware of this. We don’t have to tell them what to do, just have a discussion. Challenge yourself. Invite yourself. who is your best self That is the question. Create a conversation so people can discuss how they can change, and then ultimately create tools for people who want to change so they can do so. It’s pretty easy. Treat your fellow Americans with dignity. Point. This is the invitation.