The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2021) defines SEL as the “process through which all children and adults acquire and learn to apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” While homewas previously seen as the site for social-emotional learning, and school for academic learning, recent work challenges this dichotomy. 

Experts hold that SEL should be taught across home and school contexts, and preparation in SEL made available for parents, caregivers, educators and students alike (NCSEAD, 2019Albright, Weissberg, & Dusenbury, 2011). During the last few years, as part of the Newark Trust for Education, I’ve been involved in studies of social-emotional learning (SEL) in home and school settings. Our research shows that adult SEL can be catalytic for individuals and families. The vast majority of parents and caregivers in our SEL program wholeheartedly embraced it. Some adults even termed improved SEL capacity “life-changing.”  Their stories ranged from eureka moments of self awareness, breaking old patterns of behavior, healing rifts with parents and partners, establishing consistent and joyful relationships with children, and finding harmony with coworkers. Through strengthening their SEL competencies,they set in motion a ripple effect that also benefited others in their families and communities. When doing fieldwork, my research training tells me to not get swept away by rah-rah stories, and to always look for discrepant instances. However, such instances were elusive.

The question that remains is how participants sustain this practice. So, in December 2022, we circled back to some of the participants from the Fall 2020 SEL workshop series to talk about how they felt about SEL two years down the line. We thought it was opportune as we are currently refining our school-based SEL program, integrating SEL in our early learning programs, and raising the profile of SEL in Newark and New Jersey through our advocacy work. Before sharing these stories, here’s some background. Empowered Parents is a five-week workshop series offered since 2018 by Abbott Leadership Institute and the Newark Trust for Education. Empowered Parents aims to help adults strengthen five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2003). The workshops are for parents, grandparents, and other Newark caregivers and have been offered in-person at 12 school and community sites in all five wards of Newark. Empowered Parents pivoted to a virtual format during the pandemic, and was offered in both English and Spanish. To date, the series has reached more than 200 participants. While the sessions are focused on parents and caregivers, weekly homework projects involve their children, partners, parents, coworkers or friends. The Trust’s  study of Empowered Parents included pre- and post-program surveys, and follow-up surveys and interviews conducted with all 34 graduates of the Fall 2020 English and Spanish workshops. In this article, I first discuss all participants’ self-reported growth on the five competencies as a result of the workshop, before sharing perspectives from a subset of participants regarding where they are two years later.

1. Self-awareness is defined by CASEL as a realistic perception of one’s own values, interests, and strengths, and being able to recognize one’s own emotions. The vast majority of participants (88%) rated themselves at an advanced level in the post-survey. A participant said that Empowered Parents worked as a “magnifying glass on how important speech is, listening is, ownership of what you say is. One of the really good things from the workshop is a change of perspective on how you can say the same thing better.” 

2. Self-management is the competence to manage emotions, impulses, and stress, and whether one is able to establish and achieve goals and exercise self-discipline. Participants held themselves to higher standards in the post-survey, with more rating themselves at the intermediate level, and fewer at the advanced level than in the pre-survey. A participant stated, “When you don’t allow yourself to give in to random outbursts, people want to be around you more. No landmines. No surprises. There’s comfort in that predictability.” 

3. Social awareness allows one to take the perspective of and empathize with someone else and to appreciate and respect diversity. The majority (88%) rated themselves at an advanced level in the post-survey. A participant shared a powerful change story, “My dad would say you are stupid to my brother. Maybe my brother began to believe he was stupid. I tried to help my dad understand how words can have a lifelong effect.” She discussed how she kept sharing her learning with her father, who then became open to going to therapy.

4. Relationship skills supports participation in healthy, cooperative, and caring relationships, and effectively resolving conflict. Similar to self-management, there was an increase in participants who felt they were at an intermediate level (from 33% to 46%). A participant said, “My day is so packed. I learned to stop for one minute. I would hide in the bathroom and breathe. Do the gratitude exercise (from the workshop). Then I would sit with my daughter and give her a hug and say I really appreciate you. I never did that before.”

5. Responsible decision-making helps recognize and generate good choices, evaluate the likely consequences of actions, and take responsibility for one’s decisions. A mother reflected on how she initially did not have a positive relationship with her daughter. During a school meeting she found out that her daughter had confided to her teacher that she was depressed. She said: “ I felt bad that she said it to her teacher but not to me.” Instead of confronting her daughter, the next time she noticed her daughter looking down, she said, “When you’re ready I’m here. I went to my room and then she came into my room and stayed with me, and I felt like it was a breakthrough.”

It’s rare that one sees 100% agreement on answers to survey questions! In a follow-up survey, all 34 graduates of the Empowered Parents workshops reported that they enjoyed the sessions and resonated with the topics. They all felt that their learning was applicable with family, friends, and colleagues.

The follow-up survey was conducted a few weeks after the workshop, and participants reported that they had begun applying SEL tools and sharing their learning with their loved ones. Over half reported that people around them had already begun noticing changes in their behavior as a result of the workshop. 

Two challenging years have gone by, with the pandemic dominating 2021, and 2022 being a year when children and adults readjusted to in-person experiences in school and work settings. What do workshop participants think of SEL now? We asked five former participants what SEL currently means to them, what strategies (if any) they still use, whether they continue to share their learning with family members and others, and related topics. 

Integrating SEL: All five parents reported making social-emotional learning an integral part of how they routinely operated. About what stayed after two years, a parent said, “ Keeping calm, and redirecting, and thinking before you speak. When you work through it, it refreshes you. It refreshes my memory as to what my goals really are - to better myself as a person and a parent!” Another parent stated, “I’ve learned that the state of my wellbeing is important to my child. Social-emotional learning is my foundation for safe parenting and positive learning.” SEL has continued to help another parent develop stronger communication with her daughter. Her daughter currently lives abroad and the parent said, “It’s even more important now to communicate well. I feel my daughter has opened up to me more.” A parent stated, “I don’t approach situations in the same way anymore. I don’t have to even think about it now. I observe, I don’t jump in aggressively.” One stated, “I don’t let people’s negativity get to me.” And last but not least, a parent stated, “SEL has become my lifestyle.”

Ripple effects: The reach of all five parents extended far beyond themselves and their children. “My mother now calls me and asks me how I would handle this or that situation because she sees that I handle things better,” a parent said. “I tell everyone about it. Some of my friends went and did the course because I told them to,” said a parent (and a grandparent). A parent who is also a child care worker spreads the word among the families that come to her early learning center. She said, “I didn’t know anything about it. When I understood SEL I understood the importance of it. I convey my message to other parents.” She also talked about how SEL made difficult conversations easier to have. “One of the teachers was having trouble telling a mom her child needed early intervention. I calmly spoke to the mom about early learning milestones, and gave her resources and pointed her in the right direction.” Another parent shared some of what she had learned at the workshop with her coworkers, because they noticed that she handled difficult work situations much more calmly and positively than they did. She said, “I treat people like how I want to be treated. Sometimes people look to be in a bad mood but they just need someone to say hello to them and give them a smile.” She is also the PTO President at her child’s school and has asked NTE for support in bringing the workshop to her workplace and to her children’s school. Two of the parents we spoke with  are part of the Trust’s  Families as Decision Makers leadership cadre, and have selected SEL as one of the four topics that they want to advocate for among different communities in Newark. 

Room for growth: Despite these impressive stories, all five parents are quick to note that SEL is an ongoing journey. One mother said, “Even though the children and I look for solutions to problems together, we can’t expect to be perfect.” Another parent stated that though she understands SEL well, she finds it difficult to describe it to another person and would like help with this. “I don’t know where to start. Sometimes the other parent finds it a lot. How do I convey my ideas to another person?,” she asked. Another said, “We are human and we are not without flaws. Things will get to me and I’ll stress for a moment. The difference is that I’ll let the situation linger and I’ll have my moment when I’ll be upset. Then I’ll take another moment to get a perspective on how I can let it go.”

It’s true that this was a small sample of five parents, but again, no discrepant instances! Two years may have passed, but it is clear that SEL is still an integral part of who they are. They continue to share it even as they further hone it. It would be valuable to follow up with all 34 participantsfrom the Fall 2020 cohort to learn about where they are on this journey!

Don’t miss the video interview by Newark Trust for Education ED Ron Chaluisan with Tiffany Newton, Empowered Parents graduate and SEL champion on what SEL means to her and her family today!