Teaching civics’ soft skills: How do civics education and social-emotional learning overlap? 

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Decades of research has shown that high-quality SEL improves social and academic outcomes for students, and even sets the stage for healthy brain development. But a new framework out from CASEL, SEL’s largest research and advocacy organization, added a new long-term outcome: engaged citizenship. Identity development that leads to self-awareness, they wrote, is associated not only with positive mental health and self-esteem, but “productive citizenship later in life.” 

In turn, civics organizations have begun adding SEL to their core competencies. A few years ago, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools added SEL as complementary to their “Six Proven Practices” that include civics and government courses, service learning and student-led school groups. Advocacy organizations like CivXNow, a non-partisan pro-civics group of 100 organizations, think it’s important as well.

“Civics and SEL have a symbiotic relationship, and when we integrate them, we help nurture students as knowledgeable, caring and engaged citizens,” said Emma Humphries, CivxNow’s deputy director and chief education officer at iCivics. “At a time when Americans can’t agree on anything, this is incredibly important. There’s a sense that Americans, and, with it, our constitutional democracy, could really benefit from two things: more and deeper civic knowledge, and increased civility.”

A crisis in civics education 

Over the last fifty or sixty years, civics education has fallen out of favor in many schools. Educating for citizenship, once the core mission of public schools, was sidelined by competing objectives like educating for college and career, and focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). 

High-stakes testing and accountability measures, focusing on reading and math, forced important subjects like history and government to the sidelines. In the last round of 8th grade assessments on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 2018, only 15% scored proficient in history, and about 24% scored proficient in civics. Experts say sidelining history, civics and government contributed to America’s incredibly low level of knowledge about their civic rights, responsibilities and system of government, and might contribute to low voting rates as well. 

But while history and civic knowledge is crucial, many of today’s civic challenges, as seen through recent crises, are more complex. The social isolation and alienation, sharing of online misinformation, and hateful polarization that helped contribute to recent events can’t neatly be solved by content classes alone. 

Solving these issues, experts say, requires a more holistic approach. “Both enterprises are anchored in relationships,” said Robert J. Jagers, vice president of research at CASEL. History provides context to what happened in the past, while SEL helps students assess how they should behave in the future. 

A positive school culture with standards and codes of behavior, he said, is SEL that also naturally helps students prepare for living in a democracy. “SEL is civic socialization, it’s relational, helping you to understand yourself in connection with other people,” Jagers said. “Your own thoughts and emotions and behaviors, how to be reserved when it’s appropriate, when you do that in a group. You learn how to do that by extension as the groups get larger, and the contexts get different.” 

Civics skills where SEL plays a part

As the connection between civics and SEL becomes stronger, educators and programs are finding ways to highlight how SEL improves the civic skills needed to meet twenty-first century challenges. 

Media literacy is an important civic skill. Research shows that a majority of students can’t discern the truth of what they read or see online, and the “fake news” shared on social media has been a driver of polarization and civil unrest. Yet investigating the emotions behind how we share and what we believe on social media is a crucial part of media literacy that often doesn’t get addressed, said librarian and author Jennifer LaGarde. 

Social-emotional learning can help students identify the why behind what they share, she said, and understand the important role managing emotions plays. 

In the new book “Developing Digital Detectives: Essential Lessons for Discerning Fact from Fiction in the ‘Fake News’ Era,” LaGarde and co-author Darren Hudgins say that before fact checking an online claim, students need to do an “emotion check” first. 

“We know that one of the ways to get us to click and hit ‘share’ is to trigger an emotion,” LaGarde said. “Once that emotion is triggered, the flight or fight part of our brain is triggered, and then it doesn’t matter what we know about fact checking. The emotion has taken over.” 

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