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Compliance vs Social-Emotional Learning

This post walks a delicate line of supporting both compliance and concepts of social-emotional learning such as identifying and managing emotions. I argue that there is cognitive dissonance in celebrating one's own self-awareness while simultaneously obeying demands for compliance in a traditional school setting. I argue that the cause of this dissonance does not solely rest in one or the other (i.e. "compliance" versus "social-emotional learning") but is rooted in the philosophical soil of a school's approach toward classroom management and campus-wide expectations for all involved in student learning.


The Problem: Self-Awareness and Compliance

Social and emotional learning will likely prove to be a worthwhile endeavor for students who experience academic success within a school's boundaries of compliance. This will seem especially true in the hearts and minds of those administrators and teachers who experienced academic success through the more traditional, or more industrialized, classroom setting. The self-awareness of a school's staff of their own development and preferences for learning give way to preferences toward expectations for their own students. However, it seems more likely that the students feeling dissatisfaction toward such demands for compliance are more empowered to speak out against it. It seems risky to empower students with the skills and knowledge that promote self-awareness and emotional intelligence at the risk of more students challenging the status quo of compliance for the sake of academic learning. The undercurrent of complaints I hear sound like, "Kids only want to play, they don't want to learn, and it's the teachers' job to teach kids what they don't want to learn." With this perspective, it makes sense that a teacher or parent feels the way they do about the need for compliance.

Unfortunately, students will inevitably associate demands for compliance with their own feelings of pride, joy, guilt, anger, sadness, shame. The problem is not students becoming empowered and challenging demands for compliance by teachers and school administrators. The problem is that a school's demands for compliance is rooted in authoritarian power imbalance with a plaid-design of rules and consequences meant to maintain that imbalance more than they are meant to build a students awareness of self, social, and societal responsibility beyond the teacher-student relationship.


Value of Compliance

It is important to keep in mind the purpose of compliance in schools - safety, oversight, accountability - are critical benefits of compliance. When a parent leaves their child at a school, that parent trusts that the school will return the child in at least as good condition. Compliance between administrators and teaching staff is important. When the child goes home and returns the next day, there is often some communication between teacher and parent to convey what new skills and concepts the child is learning and practicing. Compliance between teacher and parent is important. Most relevant for this article, classrooms with dozens of students entering and exiting every day (or even every hour) will require students adhere to strict classroom routines and procedures to ensure all students are provided access to more traditional time-based and task-oriented instruction and assessment. Compliance between teachers and students and between the students themselves is absolutely necessary. It would be misleading to argue that social-emotional learning is the opposite of compliance - it is not. The institution of school, or the system of structured learning, is built on a concept of necessary compliance through structure. As this article continues to explore this fascinating dichotomy of compliance and social-emotional learning, we must not disregard the intent and purpose for compliance in schools to the point of removing it completely.


Big Picture: Value of Social and Emotional Learning

When it comes to addressing the value of of social and emotional learning, it is important to keep the big picture in mind - what kind of person do we want graduating high school? What beliefs do we want them to have about themselves, about others, and about how their community is meant to function both locally and globally? This "big picture", or vision, must begin in the earliest stages of schooling and develop carefully according to the social-emotional development of each student. Ask yourself how much of this vision is based on student academic knowledge and how much of it is student empowerment and strength in self-management. It is important to recognize this value in developing strong social and emotional understanding in our students. It is even more important to recognize the need to develop in our administrators and teachers a strong understanding of social and emot