The political turmoil of the last few years has many of us worried about the future of our country and our globe. The polarization, negativity, and violence make us wonder where this all came from and whether we could have done something to prevent it.

A student at a Model United Nations conference in Geneva A student at a Model United Nations conference in Geneva © ITU / J.M Planche, CC BY 2.0

But here’s the good news: Thanks to new trends in education, the next generation may be better equipped than we are. Research suggests that the growing emphasis on social-emotional (SEL) skills in schools can lay the foundation for more active civic engagement among our youth.

How do we inspire more thoughtful, respectful, and compassionate student citizens in our schools? As educators, we have the opportunity to think more strategically about how we teach democratic processes and the skills that democracy requires. If we value a thriving society, we can do our part to empower young citizens who care about creating a better future for everyone.

Lessons for a better world

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SEL and civic skills seem to be complementary, and students who learn them may not only be motivated to work toward the greater good but also live happier lives.

In a 2018 study of almost 2,500 students, researchers found that those with greater emotional and socio-cognitive skills (i.e., empathy, emotion regulation, moral reasoning, and future-orientation) reported higher civic engagement.

Among this group of eight to 20 year olds, being more empathic and future-oriented—more upset when others are treated unfairly and more aware of how decisions impact their future—predicted volunteering; helping friends, family, and neighbors; valuing political involvement (e.g., keeping up with current events and taking part in rallies); engaging in environmentally conscious behaviors; demonstrating social responsibility values; and prioritizing other civic skills like listening and summarizing conflicting views. In other words, students with certain SEL skills also claimed to be more oriented toward social, community, and political issues.

And when students help others and practice civic behaviors, they may feel better, too. In a recent one-week study of 276 college students, participants experienced greater well-being on days when they engaged in certain types of civic activities, like helping friends or strangers and caring for their environment by recycling and conserving resources. According to the researchers, these kind and helpful behaviors also seemed to be meeting young adults’ basic needs for autonomy, connectedness, and competence—to feel free, close to others, and capable.

By its nature, social-emotional learning can support the democratic structures and processes that raise up all voices in our schools, empowering students to be more engaged in their world. So how can we thoughtfully apply these skills in our own classrooms? Here are several research-based ideas and resources to consider.

1. Re-examine your disciplinary practices

Researcher Robert Jagers and his colleagues found that Black and Latino middle school students who perceived more democratic homeroom, classroom, and disciplinary practices had higher civic engagement, particularly when students perceived an equitable school climate.

Similarly, researcher Peter Levine argues that teachers who truly want to educate students about democracy face massive barriers if the school environment is “unjust or alienating.” Harsh, authoritarian, and less-inclusive climates can ultimately weaken their community engagement, turnout in elections, and trust in government.

More and more research suggests that exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) can be alienating and counterproductive, and restorative practices (strategies that focus on learning from mistakes and repairing relationships rather than punishing students) may offer a more humanizing, equitable, and respectful alternative. In this context, students come together to learn to navigate conflicts, process their feelings, and collaboratively problem-solve a way forward.

When reviewing disciplinary practices at your school, also consider the following: Who is being disciplined? How often, and why? (If your school is like many others in the U.S., your students of color are disproportionately disciplined for the same or similar infractions when compared to white students. How is your school addressing that difference?) Are preventive strategies your number-one priority (e.g., relationship and community building)? How do you model and practice communication strategies for resolving conflicts?

2. Facilitate meaningful dialogue among diverse learners

Research suggests that students in an “open classroom climate,” one that grows out of respectful dialogue and exposure to varying opinions, tend to have greater civic knowledge, commitment to voting, and awareness of the role of conflict in a democracy.

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But perhaps you don’t feel prepared to teach students how to discuss and resolve tensions—especially around charged topics like racism. You may want your classroom to feel like a “safe space,” but how, exactly, do you foster and sustain one?

Start by preparing yourself. We all have different comfort levels with conversations about race, and being uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean that we are unsafe (or shouldn’t venture into that territory). Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has created the free online Let’s Talk handbook that can help you outline some of the vulnerabilities that make you feel less effective as a facilitator (along with your strengths!), and discover specific strategies for addressing strong emotions in your classroom.


For example, when you sense confusion or denial of racism, this Teaching Tolerance tool recommends that you “ask questions anchored in class content or introduce accurate or objective facts for consideration.” Or, if students respond that they feel blamed, remind them that “racism is like a smog; we all breathe it in and are harmed by it. We may not have created the system, but we can do something about it.”

3. Use advisory time to encourage group cohesion and connectedness

If you value opportunities for meaningful dialogue, but think there isn’t time in your schedule for yet another priority, consider advisory or homeroom time in secondary schools (and classroom meetings in elementary schools). This time in the day or week can be thoughtfully structured for relationship and skill building. In this setting, students can learn how to actively participate in supportive dialogue with their peers over a sustained period of time.

In the Jagers study mentioned above, the featured homeroom routines included establishing social norms and contracts, group problem solving, and fun group activities to build connection and trust. For example, many teachers support their students in jointly creating a group “constitution” or agreement that highlights 1) the group’s values (e.g., responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty) and 2) the concrete behaviors demonstrating those values. Further, students might lead or assist the teacher in proposing activities, like fostering a small class pet, developing solutions to pressing problems at school (e.g., creating a recycling program), or simply enjoying social time together (yoga in the gym or a “get to know you” game).

Of course, students can also share greetings, personal interests, and feelings with one another. My daughter’s high school “mentor” group (designed to include multiple ethnicities and viewpoints) meets daily and sticks together for four years. Every Wednesday morning, they check in with each other, share how they are feeling, and receive “support” and “resonance” from their peers and teacher-mentor, as needed—a wonderful opportunity for fostering empathy and a sense of belonging.

During advisory or circle time, many students across the country also plan to participate in service activities in their schools and communities, which is a great way to promote volunteerism and civic responsibility.

4. Feature engaging civics lessons, activities, and projects in your curriculum

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for further civics education in social studies and history classes.

In the Action Civics program, for example, students “learn politics by doing politics.” They identify an issue they care about (e.g., homelessness, teacher pay, the opioid crisis), research it, and design a plan of action to advocate for that issue at a local level. Project-based learning like this—that is experiential, situated in the real world, and powerfully linked to students’ interests—makes politics come alive for them.

There are a number of different teaching strategies and activities (debates, Socratic seminars, and mock trials, as well as the National Model United Nations) that give students the opportunity to actively practice civic behaviors, attitudes, and values while learning more about social studies, history, and political science. Many of these approaches help students learn how to paraphrase main ideas, develop an evidence-based argument, and anticipate counter-arguments while they practice conducting themselves respectfully and professionally in a group context.

With these ideas and resources in mind, it’s time to revitalize civic learning in our schools, and SEL skills can help serve as the building blocks. When students actively practice these skills in their schools, they are likely to feel a stronger sense of personal agency in their communities and in the larger world. There may be no more meaningful work right now than supporting a thriving democracy and more informed, responsible, and caring student citizens.

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