The Healing Power of Social and Emotional Learning
I was part of the group of educators and scholars who helped establish the field of social and emotional learning (SEL) over the last 40 years. SEL involves teaching people to know themselves, manage emotions, feel empathy, establish supportive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Decades of rigorous research have documented the benefits of SEL for students, and it has been identified as one of the fastest growing and most encouraging developments in the preK-12 education world.
Looking back over recent decades, I can see some of the key dimensions of SEL that helped it become influential and effective. Colleagues like Jim Comer and Ed Zigler emphasized the importance of relationships in learning and that has since become a standard insight. Many of my fellow psychologists emphasized the importance of skills and attitudes, and those have been shown to help both advance positive development and improve learning. Educators in the field emphasized the importance of teacher training and systems-level attention to student agency, identity, and support and that too has become critical. We all believed that if we could equip children and teachers with social and emotional competencies and relationships that would help them understand themselves and others, we could strengthen their chances to grow and flourish.
But I could never have anticipated that at the age of 66, the exact skills and attitudes and practices that I believed would help children navigate daily challenges more effectively would also help keep me alive.
Three years ago, a new and unwelcome challenge arrived in my life. In January 2018, I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, an illness with a five-year survival rate of 10 percent. Overnight, I had to make many life choices, from what treatments to choose, to what to share with others, to how to manage my inner life in the face of fear and so many unknowns.
And almost immediately, I began to draw on the skills and attitudes that I’d taught to children for decades. For example, I started to practice skills I’d promoted for kindergarteners on self-regulation. I found myself strengthened when I used empathy and listening skills which I’d designed for elementary-school students on. And I found myself at peace as I focused on my own purpose in life—a skill which SEL programs offer middle and high school students. And within weeks, I recognized that I needed SEL for everything—with my wife and children, with my work colleagues, and even with my medical team.
Today, after fighting cancer for more than 3 years, I can say without question that SEL has made enormous differences in the quality of my life, my relationships, and my ability to make choices with strength and integrity. So I’ve realized that it’s time to promote a new field: SEL for health care! Based on my experience, I can suggest four key principles that can help patients and caregivers navigate serious health challenges more effectively. I offer them here as an invitation to health care providers, patients, and caregivers to consider the important implications of effective social and emotional navigation of illness.
Share Authentically. Some people are reluctant to disclose their illness. I decided to be open with my family, friends, and colleagues in keeping with the SEL skills of self-expression and trust. The results have been stunning.
Almost everyone I’ve told about my cancer responded with love, support, and guidance. Many regularly send me prayers and positive thoughts, which I find strengthening. In the face of what can often feel like overwhelming fear, I find myself experiencing more love than at any point in my life! One unexpected pleasure of my illness: I’ve found that it’s much easier for me and others to say: “I love you.”
But self-expression hasn’t only delivered emotional benefits; it’s resulted in practical benefits too. When I shared my illness with a colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she volunteered, “My father-in-law is an expert in pancreatic diseases and has been at the Mayo Clinic for 35 years. Want me to connect you?” It took me two seconds to say “yes,” which led me to amazing specialists who have kept me alive ever since.
Strengthen Relationships. My cancer journey has been tough. I have been in the hospital 25 times since 2018. Side effects from chemotherapy include pain and deep fatigue. In the face of all this, its easy to see why so many people feel upset at the medical system and worse, angry at their doctors. But research reported by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Vivek Murthy, and others has documented that having high-quality relationships is associated with decreased risk for premature mortality.
Good SEL taught me to try the relationship way. I made a commitment to do everything I could to develop strong relationships with my doctors and other health professionals. I tried to listen deeply—not reactively to advice. And I tried to encourage doctors to be direct about the typical course of my illness including how and when I might die. These open conversations have helped me and my family make difficult treatment decisions and stay close.
Throughout my illness, at least one family member accompanies me to every appointment in person, on zoom, or by phone. We prepare lists of questions and debrief what took place. Knowing my family understands my situation and steadfastly supports me gives me courage to cope and appreciate life each day.
My family and I have also been thankful for the hospital’s palliative care team. Most doctors focus on the treatment of illness. Palliative care teams offer support that combines the SEL emphasis on compassion and quality of life with the technical management of disease. To focus on enhancing quality of life for patients and families is not the same as fighting the disease. And it has made all the difference.
Make Decisions Empathically. The same way a patient’s problems are not just medical, the issues facing family and friends who care for us are not just logistical. As difficult as it can be to shift the focus from one’s self to others, it’s powerful to show empathy for those around you who are also feeling afraid. Perspective taking is a skill we teach to help children see the point of view of others and it has helped me help those around me. Five Wishes is an SEL type living will template that provides a structure for discussing difficult issues: What kinds of medical treatment do we want (or not) at the end? Who do I want to make health care decisions when I can’t make my own? What kind of funeral arrangements do we prefer? How do I want to be remembered? Discussing each choice helped my family make necessary decisions in ways that brought us closer. I’ve also encourage my family and friends to read Gail Sheehy’s Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, a moving account that offers practical advice from her caregiving journey with her husband who died of cancer.
Purpose and Service. My life is just one example of how important it is have a purpose that can motivate, inspire, and sustain. Many scholars have studied “purpose” and found it combines the power to sustain the individual while also being significant to others. Young people flourish when they learn about purpose and take steps to discover their own.
A terminal illness can seem like the opposite of purpose, but I’ve discovered the opposite. I’ve continued to write as much as I can on the field of SEL and am proud of a new article in the American Psychologist, “Systemic Social and Emotional Learning:
Promoting Educational Success for All Preschool to High School Students.” I’ve been on hundreds of zooms working on conferences, webinars, and scholarships for aspiring young educators and scholars in the field of SEL. When my illness has made it tough, it’s been tough, but my purpose has never wavered: I still believe in SEL as a source of strength and possibility for children and families.
But I also have a new purpose—to help adults in the healthcare system become aware of the power of SEL! I now have a new research question that I intend to pursue with all my energy and purpose: how can SEL make a difference for those with serious illness and for those who care for and about them? I contend that the likely outcome of my inquiry will be a definitive improvement in the lives of many around the world Developing and documenting the best ways to do that will be time well-spent.
When one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, a key decision involves how to spend your final phase of life. I will finish my life as I have lived it for 69 years – helping to make the world a better place by sharing scholarship and love.