Why My Kids Need Social-Emotional Learning More than Ever

When my children were toddlers, our pediatrician advised us to teach them the proper names for their body parts early. By the time they start school, she told us, most kids know more about cars than they do about their own bodies — because most parents find it easy to talk about cars. Maybe I was still sleep deprived, but my brain translated this idea into something bigger: my children would only learn what my husband and I managed to teach them. I remember sitting in that office, suddenly staggered by the weight of all the vital information and ideas it would be our responsibility to explain if they were going to feel at home in the world. And as I’ve discovered again and again, that list gets longer and more urgent with every passing year.

Labeling human anatomy is easy, it turns out, compared with teaching children how to move through life with open eyes and hearts, and a will to effect change. And as so many of us have come to recognize over the last (seemingly endless) months of physical separation from our teachers and school communities — our children need more than just us, their parents, to find their way. As the months passed, I’ve watched my kids growing more feral in the face of stress and social isolation. I’ve noticed they forget to say “please” and “thank you” now, when only a year ago these courtesies seemed like second nature. Where once they waited patiently (okay, more patiently — who are we kidding?) to avoid talking over each other, now it seems like they can’t wait. They struggle with frustration in a new way — with each other, with us, maybe with themselves — because none of us planned to spend our days in a closed loop of four people. Some days, I don’t know if I’m doing much better than they are. If we as parents are struggling to revive the basics of civil interaction, how can we begin to tackle the concepts that really matter?

And on the other hand, how can we not?

If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that the big ideas can’t wait. Those difficult conversations that begin around the dinner table — about racism, social justice, structural inequality, the future of our planet — can’t end there. I don’t want them to end there, because they need to include more voices than just ours.

Next fall, we will be among the founding families of Citizens of the World East Valley, a tuition-free public charter school built on the idea that children who learn to navigate their differences with compassion and respect grow up with a stronger sense of self and greater feeling of connection to the world around them. CWC schools are intentionally diverse and reflect the communities they serve. All students are welcome, and the curriculum is designed to help children seek understanding as they encounter new perspectives. Academics are project-based. Social-emotional learning offers kids tools to manage their emotions. And far from steering children away from those thorny conversations we sometimes fret about as parents, teachers at CWC actively guide them to work across lines of difference.

At the school I toured as a prospective parent, students were engaged in art, music, yoga and science experiments. There were 3rd graders studying the Chumash people who once occupied the land where their campus stands. 5th graders were asked to scour real estate listings and to use their imaginary budget to buy and maintain a building — which also meant learning how mortgages work. Kids as young as kindergarten were learning to step away to a “peace corner” when they needed to deal with overwhelming feelings. In ways big and small, these students were being asked to look at the larger world around them and to think about the role they wanted to play.

It sounds silly — no parent should be surprised to discover that teachers are helping to raise our kids. But I have been surprised — not at the fact, but at the extent of what a school can offer my children. Until now, I’ve taken for granted that the classroom can be a place not just for academic fact, but for exploring what it means to be a person. If you’re an educator, you’re probably laughing right now. If, like me, you’re just a parent, you’re probably imagining that moment you haven’t had all year — when your kids come home to tell you about their day, and you see a door has opened onto a part of being human they’ve never explored before.

I know that the return to school will come with tears and sleepless nights (and yeah, the kids will probably struggle too). But when I think about what’s waiting for them in the classroom, I feel nothing but relief. Their school will help them learn to process a world that sometimes feels broken. Their circle will expand again, and through the discomfort of leaving home, they’ll find new ways to connect. Because, just as my husband and I try to do, their school can help my children to find their own paths. To move comfortably and consciously within any community. To see themselves as part of the fabric of something bigger. What more could I ask for? These, after all, are the very things I’ve been trying so hard to offer across the dining room table.

Ellen Schumacher is a screenwriter and novelist. She lives with her family in Los Angeles, where she's constantly in search of new things to worry about.