Executive Function and SEL

While I think that there is a Mercedes SEL, and I imagine some “top executives” might drive them, a big topic in psychology and kids these days is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and “executive function” (related to decision-making).

A number of programs have been developed to target and teach young kids how to regulate emotions, solve problems constructively and work well with others, and the research is coming in to support the value of this sort of focus.  The results suggest that kids who get this sort of teaching early on show an average of ten points higher on later tests of academic achievement, a needle that proves very hard to move (even if it is the over-focus of much misguided education these days).

Further, kids who get SEL also show significantly lower rates of later violence and alcohol abuse; they were also more likely to finish high school.  This makes sense in terms of kids being more able to learn if they are more able to get along and deal with their feelings.  For more on SEL see the April, 2010 article in Monitor on Psychology by Tori DeAngelis “Social awareness+emotional skills=successful kids.”

Critics of such programs assert that teaching SEL is the job of parents, and that teachers already have enough on their plates, however, as we broaden our concept of parenting (particularly the notion of embracing all our collective kids) it makes sense as individuals and as a community to place appropriate value on SEL—and worry about who will be tasked with imparting it after agreeing that someone needs to make it happen or we sell our kids short and leave them behind (despite all empty slogans to the contrary).

Besides the sorts of executives who wear suits and take meetings, “executive function” is a buzz-word/concept that is gaining a lot of traction in the educational/learning/psychological realms.  Executive function is another way of talking about one’s ability to maintain attention, plan ahead and make good decisions; “poor executive function” is a way that specialists and educators put a label on those kids who can’t turn their homework in to save their lives, even after you’ve been sure they completed it, and carefully crafted plans and reinforcers and all sorts of interventions that very often add up to frustration and feelings of being a bad parent, when in fact it just might be that the brain wiring just doesn’t seem to be working in this arena (one of the best cures for executive function issues is the brain’s natural development, which isn’t complete until well into the twenties).

It seems that social and emotional learning, however, inter-connects with executive function, enhancing executive function in kids who receive SEL.  Thus we have yet another reason to place emphasis on social and emotional learning in young kids—a counter-argument for parents who are obsessed with “kindergarten readiness” rather than “works well with others.”  In our culture of hyper-competitiveness, we have strongly trended toward facilitating excellence in the individual, rather than harmony and cooperation in the group; and yet this approach is counter-productive, even in terms of later achievement for individuals.

Maybe SEL is another, modern way, of saying that it’s cool to be kind—a trend toward bringing the “feminine principle” of compassion and feelings back into the “masculine” world of rationality and reason—a part of our collective need to bring soul back into a world grown increasingly dead and soulless under the influence of endless striving, materialism and clueless narcissism.

I’m not sure that we need to teach kids to share, cooperate and take a social interest in others as a course (I guess, sadly, that maybe we do as things stand) so much as cultivate our own social and emotional learning, taming our own hyper-competitive impulses (that lead to little nourishment in our inevitably disappointing “achievements” anyway) and calm our entitlement and elitism—not for moral reasons, but out of enlightened self-interest so that we can opt out of our hamster-wheel work-ethics and be less restless and melancholy in moments of repose, but also so that we might teach our kids by example rather than via a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do curriculum.

It is for these reasons that rooting for the other kids as well as our own, thinking about the well-being of all our collective children, becomes synonymous with being our best Selves and finding equanimity and happiness through taking a parenting attitude toward life and our world.

Namaste, Bruce


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4 Responses to “Executive Function and SEL”

  1. Jean Tracy, MSS Says:

    Bruce, what a great article! Social and emotional learning are so important for successful relationships and a successful life.

    I’m retweeting this article. Parents, teachers, counselors, and kids can benefit from your wise words.

  2. chris white Says:

    great article bruce! resonate totally with your perspective. keep em’ coming!

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