When you hear social-emotional learning (SEL), you may think of helping students overcome depression and anxiety and improving classroom behavior. But did you know SEL can also prepare students to change the world through civic engagement?

Educators and researchers affirmed the power of SEL in civic engagement education at the 2021 SEL Exchange Virtual Summit.

“As adults, we all have an important part to play,” Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs at CASEL, said during the October conference. “It is up to us to create environments in the classroom, in our schools, and in partnership with parents and caregivers and throughout our community so that young people have the SEL skills they need to civically engage.”

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What is Civic Engagement?

Any effort to address public concerns counts as civic engagement, said Joseph Kahne, co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at University of California, Riverside. It includes learning about elections, volunteering in the community, and working on environmental projects.

Bloodine Barthelus, director of practice innovations at CASEL, encouraged conference attendees to recognize their students’ potential to positively impact their communities.

“Oftentimes we may think [civic engagement] is a broad, sweeping movement or making large-scale changes, and it can certainly be that, but it is also the individual young person speaking up and taking action,” Barthelus said.

Children volunteering in soup kitchen as part of civic engagement.

The Need for Critical Consciousness

Advocating for change requires critical consciousness: the ability to understand and challenge oppressive social forces. Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire, came up with this term when he was teaching literacy to rural laborers, explained Scott Seider, an associate professor at Boston College. Freire discovered his students were more motivated to learn when they saw reading as a way to understand and change their social situation. As Freire put it, they were learning to “read the word to read the world.”

Critical consciousness has three components:

  • Social analysis – awareness of the social forces in your life
  • Political agency – believing you can change the status quo
  • Social action – opposing social forces to improve your community

Daren Graves, an associate professor at Simmons University, told conference attendees:

“We need young folks to have competencies in all three of those components so that they can be making responsible and critical decisions about how to move forward to help shape their worlds and our world.”

He explained that people who have social analysis but no political agency or social action become hopeless and don’t try to improve their community, while those who engage in social action without social analysis don’t actually care about political issues; they show up to protests because their friends are there. Such thoughtless actions — or inactions — won’t help people create a better world. Thus, Graves urged educators to develop students’ critical consciousness in each of these areas.

Critical consciousness also improves children’s academic performance and social-emotional well-being, according to Graves and Seider’s research. During Seidier’s presentation, Nurturing Young People’s Critical Consciousness to Thrive in and Transform the World, he said:

“In recent years, psychologists have found that for youth from marginalized groups, being high in critical consciousness is predictive of a number of positive outcomes, such as academic engagement, political engagement, higher professional aspirations, as well as a number of social-emotional skills such as resilience and self-esteem.”

Laying the Foundation for Civic Engagement

You may be thinking, I understand civic engagement and critical consciousness are important, but what do they have to do with social-emotional learning?

Schlinger explained:

Children need self-awareness and social awareness to understand the social forces in their lives.
Students with self-management are more likely to believe they can change their community.
Responsible decision-making and relationship skills help students effectively oppose social forces.

Ironically, the SEL skills needed to develop critical consciousness match the five core social and emotional competencies in CASEL’s framework. Helping children grow in these five competencies will not only empower them to improve their communities but also elevate their learning and development.

Aija Simmons from Oakland Unified School District and Matt Gray Jr. from Austin Achieve Public Schools shared how they’ve integrated social-emotional learning into their classrooms to prepare students for civic engagement.

Developing a Sense of Identity

Simmons advised teachers to give children opportunities to develop strong identities through exploration as a foundation for civic engagement.

“Schools should be places where students begin to discover what thriving looks like for them,” Simmons said.

While many teachers start the school year off with a get-to-know-you activity, Simmons said young students need to understand that their identities are not fixed. Rather, we “journey into our full selves” over time.

“As educators, we want to support young children, in age-appropriate ways … to have opportunities for exploration so that they understand their unique position in their various identity groups and are able to share those ideas in practice and in community with other students,” Simmons added.

To give teachers an example of what they can do with their students, Simmons shared the five questions she has asked her six-year-old daughter periodically for the past three years:

  • What is your favorite color?
  • What is your favorite food?
  • What is your favorite place to go?
  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • What do you always hear grown-ups say?

Each time she asks these questions, she talks to her daughter about how her answers have changed.

Teachers don’t have to ask students these questions, or ask any questions at all. They can ask children to draw a self-portrait or create a collage with each image representing a different aspect of themselves.

Studies Weekly teachers can use the Well-Being and World History curriculum to teach lessons on self-awareness (WB, week 14), moral identity (WB, week 3), and cultural identity (WH, week 2).

What matters is giving children a chance to not only affirm their identities but to see how they have evolved.

Gray helps his students develop a strong sense of identity by exploring different modules that make up who they are, including their race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and gender. He said learning to love who they are and where they come from gives them the ability to care about the members of their society.

“The old cliche, you can’t love someone until you love yourself is true,” Gray said. “Once you are able to appreciate and love yourself, then you can appreciate and love other groups of people, even if you aren’t able to directly identify with them.”

Children who possess a strong sense of identity can decide what role they want to play in their community and how to advocate for what they believe.

Honing Relationship Skills

For children to change their communities, they need solid relationship skills. Simmons recommended teaching and modeling good facilitation moves, such as active listening, clear communication, and unbiased objectivity.

“We have so many opportunities as educators to bring our students into conversation, to teach them facilitated discussion moves that allow them to ask more questions that position them to reflect, that position them to share their unique experiences and to synthesize together in groups and come away with some takeaways,” Simmons said. “Many of those academic discussion moves that we make are beginning the foundations of helping students come into conversations with people whose experiences are different from them and to utilize some of those facilitation moves that we use in classroom conversations as tools to engage civically.”

When students learn good facilitation skills, Simmons said they learn how to ask questions, agree or disagree respectfully, and explain how their lives are not the same as other people’s. Students also learn how two people can walk away from the same scenario with different takeaways.

Gray helps his students develop relationship skills by having them study various groups of people, especially those his students cannot directly identify with, then do case studies on the similarities and differences between those groups.

To help you improve children’s relationships skills, Studies Weekly Well-Being has whole units on good communication (week 12), demonstrating empathy (week 3), and social skills (week 9).

Processing Emotions

SEL prepares students for civic engagement by giving them time to process their emotions, especially if they have experienced trauma due to oppressive social forces such as racism, sexism, or other forms of prejudice.

“SEL is learning to work through those innate human emotions and experiences,” Gray said as he shared about the time he got arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and how that left him feeling angry, hopeless, and resentful. “Because I gave myself time to experience those, I was able to get to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t want to experience those; I want to experience the full vitality of life.’”

SEL gave Gray the tools to help his students do the same thing, but he knew he couldn’t stop there. He needed to also teach his students how to create a better world for themselves and others in their situation.

“You can lead a healthy, fulfilling life and still be totally disengaged from society. And that’s the type of life I didn’t want for myself and didn’t want for my scholars because what good is living a healthy, fulfilling life if you’re the only one who’s able to live it? And that’s where civic action comes in.”

Teaching Tools to Develop Critical Consciousness

Once teachers lay the foundation for civic engagement, they can continue using SEL to foster critical consciousness. Based on his research with Seider, Graves recommended these teaching strategies:

Youth Teaching Youth

Graves said another school they looked at had older students involve lower grade students in helping them complete their Change the World action projects. Learning from their peers proved effective in teaching the younger students the importance of civic engagement.

Having students teach each other also allows them to practice the communication and relationship-building skills they learn through SEL.

Real-World Assignments

Graves recommended teachers have students explore real-world problems and form their own conclusions. Assignments like this “help children build empathy, take different perspectives, and apply skills to real life,” Graves said.

Opportunities to Affect School Change

One of the best ways educators can develop students’ civic engagement, Graves explained, is to give them opportunities to make changes at their school so they learn how to make changes in their communities.

“School is the best place to fail and try again because you have teachers and friends who support you,” Graves said.

These changes don’t have to be big, Seider explained. He gave an example of first-grade students who discovered their classroom library didn’t represent minority groups. The teacher had them research children’s books that promoted diversity then ordered them for the classroom.

Giving children opportunities to evaluate their environment and propose solutions also hones SEL skills such as social awareness, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. The more they develop these competencies, the better equipped they are to engage civically.

Modeling Vulnerability

Civic engagement often leads to heated debates as people open up about how social forces have harmed them and their families. Graves recommended teachers model how students can share their thoughts and feelings while still respecting other people.

With Studies Weekly Well-Being, teachers can instruct children in identifying their emotions (week 2), communicating their thoughts (week 12), and showing respect for others (week 31) so they can discuss sensitive topics.


In this digital age, children constantly hear about all the problems going on in the world. Educators can show them they have the power to change their communities. With the help of a research-based social-emotional learning curriculum, teachers can develop students’ critical consciousness through social awareness, self-management, and relationship skills so they are prepared to take on oppressive social forces and create a better tomorrow.

Studies Weekly Social Studies has integrated social-emotional learning in each lesson plan. See state-specific samples at: studiesweekly.com/state-specific-samples/

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