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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 emotional learning in order for them to coach our students. The schools that internalize and exercise healthy approaches to social and emotional concepts and competencies will likely see that understanding mirrored in their students.

At this point, if you are beginning to see the value of what this article is attempting to describe, you might be considering the influence of powers beyond a school's administration. This must not be the reason for dismissing this article's point or the value of reconsidering your school's vision. It may be that your community must do their part to support such efforts to promote social-emotional learning by challenging the measures by which school's are rated which are currently based solely on academic proficiency - not growth, and definitely not social-emotional growth.

Possible Negative Effects of Social and Emotional Learning

It would be irresponsible to offer students knowledge without guidance and we can already see the negative impacts of such irresponsibility. Many adults already say things like "I'm bad at math" or "I can't write essays" after receiving thirteen years of K-12 academic instruction. Now imagine handing students thirteen years of instruction on emotions, feelings, and coping strategies for increasingly difficult emotional situations. Because social and emotional learning is part of every day life, it can seem like people "naturally" learn how to be social and simply "figure out" how to manage their emotions. There are many people that feel other people simply don't "get it" or are "just weird" in ways they can't (or have no desire to) be explained. For those people, they might consider it better that others are not taught about emotions and coping strategies, thinking about all the math and writing they learned to hate when it was taught in ways that didn't make sense to them. Is it too far removed to imagine students learning to hate the same approach to direct instruction of emotions and coping strategies? The negative effects of social-emotional learning must be taken into consideration but not as a result of the knowledge but in the traditional approach of teaching through compliance.

Balancing Compliance and Social and Emotional Learning

The value of these two ideas, compliance and social-emotional learning, can find themselves in direct contradiction to each other which makes balancing them quite the feat.

First imagine a classroom that schedules weekly lessons on emotions, feelings, and coping strategies - twenty minutes, once a week. Picture students disinterested in the teacher's particular topics or examples for these lessons - especially when students discover no grade is to be assigned to that lesson. The student wishing to openly express feelings of disinterest risks interrupting the teacher's planned lesson which is clearly an unacceptable result in a traditional classroom setting. To not express disinterest is to risk disengagement and misunderstanding of the very lesson on emotions, feelings, and coping strategies that student may be feeling. Further, consider the student wishing to openly express disinterest finding themselves in a state of compliance through the indistinct awareness that their peers also will not stand up in protest for the benefit of their own education. Compliance is the name of the game - even without the reward of a graded assignment, sitting through the lesson without interrupting is equal to a high mark on an academic test.

Second, imagine a student openly expressing disinterest toward a lesson. Imagine the teacher deciding to inform the student directly the importance of the topic and returning to their planned twenty-minute lesson for that week. Now imagine, instead, that same teacher deciding to use that twenty-minutes to ditch the planned lesson and focus on the particular feelings and coping strategies for how students are feeling right now versus other times of the day. Compliance is no longer the name of the game when the focus of the teacher-student relationship is no longer based on a time-based curriculum-focused system of teacher expectations but rather on a student-based interest-focused system of student growth expectations.

It is important for the teacher to approach their classroom management style with an awareness and a balance of compliance and social-emotional learning. This takes patience and an understanding for the needs of the school, the classroom, the various students, as well as themselves as they shift the ownership of learning to the students in their classroom. This is intended to redefine, not remove, the authority of the teacher. I recognize that this is easier said than done as it often conflicts with a community's deep-rooted beliefs toward the role of the teacher, but the value of our student's human development must become equal if not greater than our expectations for academic proficiency.

Compliance in a Self-Directed Learning Environment

The self-directed classroom in a public school setting is unique to the school and its community and requires intentional forethought to find a reasonable balance of compliance and productive human development in both staff and students.

This begins with the staff. Just as teachers must first master their content knowledge prior to effectively guiding students in that content, teachers must also master their own competencies in managing self, social, and societal awareness. This takes time, observation, and reflective discussion. It also require a framework for shared language and progress monitoring.

When an elementary teacher speaks of complex emotions, they must also know how those emotions are built from basic emotional building blocks - this will help them to see not only where there elementary students are coming from but also communicate appropriate coping strategies to families as well as subsequent grade level teachers.

When a middle school teacher speaks of simple emotions, they must also know how to communicate those basic building blocks in connection with the newfound compound and complex emotions felt by their students. The coping strategies for handling their own developing emotions may need to start with their elementary teacher strategies and incorporate more social or empathetic strategies appropriate for their development.

These examples are focused on emotional intelligence and represent only one aspect of healthy social and emotional development. The compliance issue is not separate or opposite to these examples - they are these examples. A student "out of compliance" may be one that speaks out in uncontrolled sadness, frustration, or even joy. Approaching those emotions with systems of rewards and punishments shifts the responsibility of controlling those emotions to the teacher, removing the ownership of that control from the student. This is also true when a student's coping strategies are unproductive in an academic classroom. Approaching a bored or melancholy student with a system of rewards and punishments devalues their own capacity to not only identify and cope with their emotions but also devalues their sense of responsibility toward needing to manage those emotions in lieu of an arbitrary reward or out of fear of social or academic punishment.

The balance between compliance and social-emotional learning is not a checklist in a workbook or teacher guide. The balance is in our own understanding of self, social, and societal responsibilities as we each develop through stages of moral reasoning, cognitive complexity, and compounding psychosocial development. The more we as educators understand our role in guiding young humans through this development, the more we will value our own need to reflect and grow as humans.

It begins with us, the educators, to learn more about social-emotional learning.

Learn more about my SEL Framework here.

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