Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource
Agreements for participating in a conversation held in a circle of students and staff at the Aim High summer program held at the Urban Promise Academy in Oakland.

Over the past few months, we’ve all witnessed heated debates on issues both large and small play out on TV screens and at school board meetings across the country.

I’m all for vibrant civic engagement. But this is not that. Managing difficult conversations requires that we double down on a commitment to social and emotional learning.

Young people need role models. That means that educators, families, and policymakers must show what it looks like to have empathy, to solve problems collaboratively, and to insist on perspective-taking. These skills are the core of social and emotional learning, which is the lifelong process of learning how to understand ourselves, connect with others, achieve our goals, and support our communities. This is what we at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) stand for and stand behind as a central tenet of pre-K-12 education.

We long for more engaged, responsible citizens. How about asking ourselves what skills create that outcome? When and where would the next generation learn those skills?

Students learn to engage civically by analyzing how issues in the world affect their lives. They figure out how they can make a difference, and they learn how to work with others to create solutions. This is what social and emotional competency looks like. For example, they ask themselves, “What is happening in the world around me that I want to change?  What are the problems that matter to me, my family, and my friends, and how can I be part of the solution?”

The connection between social emotional learning and civic solutions is not lost on young people.

I’ve been inspired by Zo Pancoast, a 19-year-old from Berkeley, CA, who recently took a gap year before entering college. She wanted to apply  SEL skills that she learned through her work with the Mosaic Project in Oakland, an organization dedicated to uniting children of diverse backgrounds and empowering them to become peacemakers. As a youth leader, she developed a summer program focused on teaching high schoolers The Mosaic Project’s  strategies for conflict resolution, empathy, and celebrating differences.

As she helped prepare to discuss the connections between social and emotional learning and civic engagement at our upcoming SEL Exchange, she told us: “I think for change to happen, first, there needs to be hope that change is possible, and then I think there needs to be the belief in oneself that you are capable of making that change, and I think that’s where social and emotional learning is so crucial. It’s about how can we make sure that individuals feel valued, feel seen, feel heard, and feel like they have the ability to create this change, and then how can we support them once they are taking action?”

Zo’s example isn’t an outlier. We can scale the effect of social and emotional learning on civic engagement in two simple ways:

  • Help students apply social and emotional learning skills against manageable goals – When students look at the problems their communities are facing, it can often feel overwhelming. But by leaning on social and emotional competencies such as the CASEL 5 (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making), we can show them that they have the necessary skills and help them set manageable goals and actions to deploy them.
  • Develop authentic relationships – We know that civic learning happens in relationships. As educators, we can provide frequent opportunities for students to practice building relationships that connect them to the broader community in meaningful ways. We can show them that the essence of agency lies in relationships. We must encourage students to share their interests—which generates an organic community, and we can encourage them to interview leaders in their communities, which puts them in direct relationships with those who can help them advance their concerns.

Social and emotional learning helps all of us listen to one another, bridge differences, and take meaningful steps to improve our communities. This is the essence of civic engagement. Who among us isn’t hungry for that?


Karen Niemi is the president and CEO of Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit organization that promotes social and emotional learning in education. The virtual 2021 SEL Exchange Virtual Summit, “Beyond Talk: Building Tomorrow Together,” takes place on Thursday, October 14, 12-4 pm ET. 

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  1. Marita Dietz 2 years ago2 years ago

    Thanks for an inspiring article – written by a woman with an ironic first name.