Standards for Social Emotional Learning

My colleague Amee Godwin’s recent blog post about the importance of supporting students’ social emotional learning made me reflect on my own experiences as an undergraduate in journalism. In my junior year, while sitting in the student union wearing my uniform of leggings and an oversized hoodie, I was introduced to my soon-to-be mentor and boss. One semester later, my name was listed in the Daily O’Collegian as an account executive, and I was responsible for an advertising territory and a quota. With no interest in sales and introversion to boot, I began selling and designing school newspaper ads for local bars, clothing stores, and fitness gyms. One of my biggest clients was the Tumbleweed bar, which specialized in country and Western concerts, line dancing, and large plastic cups of watery beer. (Apparently, Garth Brooks worked as a bouncer and got his start at Tumbleweed.)

Preoccupied with applications for studying abroad, I accidentally ran a quarter-page ad for an upcoming Tumbleweed concert with the wrong date in bold text directly under the ad headline. This was the first of three misprints that I made around that time, each of them embarrassing and distressing, and each of them requiring problem solving and the ability to listen to my clients and deflate their frustration. In the case of the Tumbleweed ad, my initial inclination was to hope that the bar owner would not notice the mistake; however, I remembered from my public relations class that the golden rule for deflating negativity in the wake of a mistake is to admit and apologize for it as soon as possible. So I called the bar owner immediately (before he was able to call me), apologized, and offered a few options to help rectify the mistake, including rerunning the ad at no cost. And, at the recommendation of my boss, I let the bar owner talk through his disappointment, which I then acknowledged, rather than making excuses for the mistake. This strategy worked.

As a result of this experience, today I try to quickly address mistakes and listen with empathy to my colleagues and others with whom I work. As a result, I think I’ve become a better collaborator by using non-defensive communication (although I’m forever learning). I think all students need opportunities to develop social emotional learning skills such as these in college, and to apply them to professional settings.

How are institutions and others supporting the development of these skills in students? A quick glance at a few of the accreditation standards for higher education reveals a limited focus on measuring and supporting students’ social emotional skills. WASC (the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) is one of the exceptions, and it requires that baccalaureate programs “actively foster an understanding of diversity, civic responsibility, and the ability to work with others.” The importance of standards such as these are underscored by several studies, including one conducted at the University of Michigan, which revealed how, when students work with diverse sets of peers in college, they are introduced to “relational discontinuities” that are important to their sense of self and to their cognitive development.

Somewhat of a player in assessing social emotional skills is the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). The survey, which collects a range of data on student behaviors and learning needs, asks students, for example, if they have had “serious conversations” with other students on their campus with different religious or political viewpoints.

From my own experience, while I was able to develop my interpersonal communication skills by working at my school newspaper, I didn’t encounter true diversity in opinions or backgrounds until I landed a study abroad position and shared a dorm with students from all over the world. In fact, beyond requiring that we successfully complete group work, my university (in Oklahoma) in the early 90s did not set up opportunities for us to encounter “relational discontinuities” in our classes. Given the diversity of our population and workforce, it’s crucial we develop standards that require learning institutions to establish opportunities to develop these skills within the classroom.