Education is often filled with acronyms and jargon that can confuse, confound or provoke. News feeds and media are often buzzing with such words and ideas as experts and journalists bombard us with “the latest thing”. In the field of education, SEL (social-emotional learning) is “on trend”. Today, we are learning from a variety of studies that social and emotional skills don’t just aid learning, they are inextricably linked to student success and ultimately happiness. Is this a breakthrough in our understanding of how children learn or, as in most of the important things, have wise people always known this?
Learning is both social and emotional and this is plainly to be seen in any elementary school from the one-room schoolhouse to the most “innovative” laboratory schools of today. While there is no strictly defined curriculum to support such learning, there are important understandings that can help students, parents and teachers navigate the social ups and downs of the school years. An understanding of the social lives of children is an important part of this navigation.
One of my favourite books about this complex landscape is Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill’s Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. Like most good books about kids, their advice turns out to be just as useful when dealing with adults as it is when dealing with children. The most memorable lesson I retained from reading this book and discussing it with parents and colleagues is the warning against “interviewing for pain”.
What does this interrogative technique look like? Thompson describes a situation where a child complains about another child’s behavior, and then every day, when the child returns from school, the well-meaning parent asks, “So, dear, was Johnny mean to you today?”
Thompson points out that our children are quick to realize that bad stories or complaints about Johnny will be a good way to get our attention, and that children may seek to satisfy us by presenting “the facts” in the most attention-grabbing way. Thompson explains that he is not advising his readers to disbelieve their children, nor withhold empathy. He is counseling them not to nurture resentments or cling to ancient history because, as he points out, “kids don’t”.
“Interviewing for pain” can become habitual and risks shining a spotlight on the passing difficulties which are part of childhood. While motivated by good intentions, the result can be that everything good fades away and children can learn to be cynical, pessimistic, judgemental, pharisaic or chronically malcontent – and this is never in the long-term best interest of the child we wish to support.
If children are constantly interviewed for pain, they begin to hear a story of social suffering emerging from their own mouths. And soon they may begin to believe it and see themselves as victims.
The questions we ask – and our motivations for asking them – are key. Rather than asking “was Johnny unpleasant today?”, how about asking “What did you do that was creative today?”, “Tell me something you know today that you didn’t know yesterday”, “Did you like your lunch?”, “What made your teacher smile today?”, “What was the hardest rule to follow today?”, “If you could change one thing about your day, what would it be?” or “What kind of person were you today?”
One should never underestimate the power of a good question!