It has stayed with me for years that my grandmother, just before her death at the age of 89, told me that she still felt 16 years old inside and that she continued to work on growing into a better person every day. I had yet to begin my work implementing SEL at a district level, but my conversation with her informed that work for the next 10 years. She managed to define the process of adult SEL in just a few words. Human beings are never a finished product: our social and emotional progress continues over a lifetime. It takes introspection, honesty about our strengths and areas of growth, and the humble realization that we owe it to our children to engage in the process wholly so that we can assure they have a strong foundation for their own SEL journey in life. I realized that I couldn’t be an authentic guide without doing my own work first.
There is an unspoken expectation that adults are a finished product, that all of our growth happens in the first 25 years, both physiologically and psychologically. That assumption can be stifling in that we may view our mistakes as irredeemable and evidence of ourselves as failures. This cannot be further from the truth. When we are able to reflect on our social and emotional competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making) from a place of grace, we open our inner world to those competencies where we have strength, and see clearly where we still have work to do. The SEL skills that support those competency areas are gained over time through myriad experiences, and introspection is a necessary practice toward integration into our daily lives.
Diving into my own SEL work was painful at times, euphoric at others, and remains challenging to this day. It is difficult to assess ourselves objectively, yet honesty requires we do just that. I have always struggled with the idea that I am not enough. When I finally let go of the expectation that I could never allow myself to fail and embrace the idea that growth happens through failing forward, I was able to reckon with some honest truths about myself. It was a transformative time in my life and helped me to truly understand what my grandmother had grasped all along. She was living adult SEL before anyone had heard the term.
Our students and our own children are growing up in a time when they are bombarded by opinions, ideology, and pressures that those of us who lived before social media could never have imagined. They deserve to have adults in their lives who are fully cognizant of the process that social and emotional growth is over a lifetime. It is critical that they see adults not merely “modeling” SEL, but living those competencies, skills, and dispositions in real time. When we make mistakes, they need to see us embracing them and verbalizing what we can learn from those mistakes in order to strive for better. When we exhibit strengths, they need to see us own those as well. That kind of meta-cognitive modeling will build the ability to do the same with their own SEL growth.
SEL is not new. It is the process of becoming one’s best self that is an integral part of being human. As the adults in our children’s lives, we have the opportunity to be intentional about our journey in service to helping them traverse their own. Educators, parents, extended family, and community members are all necessary to this work. Adult SEL is not just about self-care, though that is important to one’s well-being. Being adult means being fallible at times and knowing that you still hold value, that young eyes are watching, ears are listening, and the best teachers are those who grow and learn every single day they’re alive.
Caroline was a founding member of the Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning Department. She Retired from a 31 year career in public education as both general and special education secondary teacher, behavior specialist, and most recently, assistant director of SEL. She established Chase SEL Consulting, LLC in the summer of 2021.
Caroline Chase can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter (@SEL_Caroline), or through LinkedIn (carolinechase1964).
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