Supporting education

Social and emotional learning is at the heart of Jewish education

In Short

Educators in Jewish settings are not only concerned with what our learners know, but also in the sort of person they become. A goal of Jewish education, regardless of where or how it takes place, is for learning to inform practice and shape how one “lives” that learning in the world. 

We’ve worked with enough Jewish educators to be confident that the work we do is relevant. But controversial? That was, quite literally, news to us. 

Upon reading of concerns about social and emotional learning in math textbooks in Florida, a wonderfully creative math teacher came to mind. At the time, her day school was implementing a school-wide mussar (character development) program. This teacher, noticing anxiety among many of the students around math (and, to some extent, academics in general), used ideas and concepts from the mussar program for stress-management and to focus student attention. Both this experienced teacher and her students (who completed evaluations of the experience) understood that these few moments “away” from math actually supported the learning goals of the class. 

This is social-emotional learning (SEL) in action! SEL is an approach to education in which the promotion of social and emotional growth occurs intentionally and planfully. SEL and academics are a both/and, not an either/or. There is substantial research evidence linking social and emotional competence and academic achievement. It isn’t difficult to see the connection. When our learners are scared or frustrated it is very difficult – nearly impossible – to learn a sugya of Talmud or how to multiply fractions. Likewise, learners who have difficulty focusing their attention, who are anxious, who lash out at peers and educators are unlikely to succeed in educational environments, particularly those which include expectations for group work and high achievement. At a time in which indicators of youth mental health are in decline, SEL’s mental-health promotion approach is a powerful complement to (though not a replacement for) school-based psychological services. 

If SEL were only useful for promoting academic success and positive mental health outcomes…dayeinu (it would be sufficient)! But there’s a lot more. Educators in Jewish settings are not only concerned with what our learners know, but also in the sort of person they become. A goal of Jewish education, regardless of where or how it takes place, is for learning to inform practice and shape how one “lives” that learning in the world. We’d hardly be satisfied with a student who can identify the proper source for the quote “Who is mighty? The one who subdues their passions” (Pirke Avot 4:1) then shouts and threatens others when they are frustrated.  

Social and emotional learning focuses on the intersection of skills (such as self-awareness, empathy, and relationship skills) and virtues or values that would bring those skills into play. Patience is a virtue, as the saying goes; it is common to see savlanut (patience) listed as a core middah (which can be translated, loosely, as a character trait). Knowing that savlanut is a virtue, though, only goes so far. To actualize this virtue, it would be helpful to recognize internal signs of impatience, redirect the associated impulses, and find some way to handle the situation that is causing the impatience. 

Though we’ve been hearing a lot about SEL recently, and the pandemic has exacerbated concerns that are addressed by SEL, this approach is not a reaction to this crisis. Educators in every setting (day school teacher, bunk counselor, etc.) always shape the social and emotional growth of their learners (students, campers, etc.). SEL aims to do this in a more goal-directed, structured, and powerful way. In fact, many educators are already “doing” SEL as part of their everyday practice. 

Importantly, the social and emotional competencies of educators are crucial: How do we manage the often-stressful work that we set out to do? Are we able to put into play those skills and virtues we want for our learners? Socially and emotionally competent educators can manage their emotions under challenging situations, understand that their handling of these situations affects their relationships with learners, determine classroom management strategies, and directly influence classroom climate. Educators model the skills and values/virtues in the way they interact with students and colleagues; when they share and think about a problem out loud; when they are open and honest about how they feel in a particular situation; and in the actions they take when dealing with frustration and conflict.  

The texts and content of Jewish education provide many entry points into SEL (you can visit www.sesl4jewished.org for examples and more information). Looking at parshat hashavua in terms of, for example, the emotions that characters might have felt, does not mean giving up on learning the text of that parshsa. Whether it’s math that we are teaching or Jewish texts and history, integrating SEL into our students’ learning will help our students be successful—academically, socially, and personally—and will help our learning settings become microcosms of the sort of Jewish (and secular!) communities we’d like to live in.

Nancy Parkes, Ed.D., is an educational consultant.

Jeffrey Kress is provost and the Bernard Heller professor of Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.