Social-emotional learning: Won’t you be my model?

The recent success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers and his groundbreaking children’s television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has educators returning to the program’s social-emotional lessons.

The recent success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers and his groundbreaking children’s television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has educators returning to the social-emotional lessons taught in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Talking to—and with—young children about their emotions, and about how to manage feelings and behaviors, was a primary focus of the show.

Decades later, developing those skills in young children remains critical to future success, says Peter DeWitt, an education consultant, author and former elementary school principal.

If students don’t have an emotional connection to their school, it can be challenging for them to become academically engaged. A large number of students who have experienced trauma need to be made comfortable in the classroom.


Mister Rogers’ [Neighborhood] also highlighted the whole idea of student voice—helping kids understand that they have a voice in their own learning, but also in their own life,” says DeWitt.

Inclusivity, equity and the understanding that friends come from different backgrounds were also tenets of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, says DeWitt.

To foster social-emotional learning, schools can start by assigning books and developing curriculum that feature diversity so students can see themselves reflected in learning materials, DeWitt says.

Emphasizing social-emotional vocabulary—with terms such as self-responsibility and self-awareness—is also key.

Making eye contact

One thing that stands out from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was Fred Rogers’ determination to validate children’s feelings as meaningful and important, and his willingness to talk about difficult emotions, says Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

“Whether it was talking about death or feeling excluded or inadequate, Mister Rogers would confront those things in ways that were uncomfortable for a lot of people,” says Schlinger.

“Having that self-awareness and understanding is a key aspect of social-emotional learning.”

Districts should implement social-emotional learning systematically, starting with a vision of what schools will be like and then work with staff to create that vision, Schlinger says.

This requires buy-in and commitment from administrative and teaching staff, which means developing communication and PD strategies to create an environment that nurtures social-emotional learning.

For example, staff can be more intentional in modeling social-emotional competence by making eye contact with one another and students in the hall and greeting students by name.

“The Mister Rogers documentary did a great job in showing how he was modeling the behaviors, relationship-building and inclusion that’s required to achieve better outcomes for all,” says Schlinger.

Time and money?

For many districts, time is one of the biggest challenges in implementing social-emotional learning—both making time during the school day to teach it and taking time outside of it for PD. Budget is another factor because of the cost associated with implementing social-emotional curriculum and PD.

Districts may also receive pushback from parents who don’t believe that schools should be involved with social-emotional learning, but educators need to continue focusing on it, says DeWitt.

“The reality is that kids come in lacking these skills,” says DeWitt. “And they need to be taught it from somewhere, and schools seem to be a good place for that to be happening.” 

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