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Teaching civics’ soft skills: How do civics education and social-emotional learning overlap? 

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Kara Cisco wants her students to deliberate. Each week in her 9th grade civics class in a suburb of Minneapolis, the educator guides students through differing ideas of American government. Whether it’s viewing a TikTok challenge through the ideas of Hobbs and Locke, or looking at natural rights theory and classical republicanism through the lens of Covid-19, she asks students to first understand, then argue for different—and often opposing—points of view. 

These exercises in “perspective-taking,” she said, take her lessons a step farther than history and knowledge-building about government. Empathy, tolerance and communicating across differences are in short supply in many communities, and young people need practice as they enter a deeply divided society. 

“We don’t necessarily have a lot of examples of two people with disparate opinions having a conversation where the goal isn’t to win,” Cisco said, “but to deliberate and understand.” 

Educators across the nation are getting focused on teaching the “soft skills” of civics education. As civics has made a comeback into classrooms after years of neglect, educators and experts say they are layering traditional civics content with skills more social and emotional in nature, like social awareness, identity development and relationship skills. Over the last few years, as political and social challenges roiled the nation—from a global pandemic to the murder of George Floyd to the January 6th insurrection—civics educators are saying both knowledge and empathy, action and communication skills are needed to be a twenty-first century citizen. Schools, they say, should be teaching both. 

To that end, perhaps the biggest comeback civics has made is that it now includes a heavy dose of Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, alongside the Articles of Confederation or how a bill becomes law. Social-Emotional Learning, an umbrella term for the development of non-academic skills like managing emotions and developing healthy relationships, is already ubiquitous in schools. But its explicit connection to civics learning, and the outcomes it’s supposed to produce, like more engaged citizens, is newer. 


Decades of research has shown that high-quality SEL improves social and academic outcomes for students, and even sets the stage for healthy brain development. But an updated framework out from CASEL, SEL’s largest research and advocacy organization in education, added a new long-term outcome: engaged citizenship. Identity development that leads to self-awareness, they wrote, is associated not only with positive mental health and self-esteem, but “productive citizenship later in life.” 

In turn, civics organizations have begun adding SEL to their core competencies. A few years ago, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools added SEL as complementary to their “Six Proven Practices” that include civics and government courses, service learning and student-led school groups. Advocacy organizations like CivXNow, a non-partisan pro-civics group of 100 organizations, think it’s important as well.

“Civics and SEL have a symbiotic relationship, and when we integrate them, we help nurture students as knowledgeable, caring and engaged citizens,” said Emma Humphries, CivxNow’s deputy director and chief education officer at iCivics. “At a time when Americans can’t agree on anything, this is incredibly important. There’s a sense that Americans, and, with it, our constitutional democracy, could really benefit from two things: more and deeper civic knowledge, and increased civility.”

A crisis in civics education 

Over the last fifty or sixty years, civics education has fallen out of favor in many schools. Educating for citizenship, once the core mission of public schools, was sidelined by competing objectives like educating for college and career, and focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). 

High-stakes testing and accountability measures, focusing on reading and math, forced important subjects like history and government to the sidelines. In the last round of 8th grade assessments on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 2018, only 15% scored proficient in history, and about 24% scored proficient in civics. Experts say sidelining history, civics and government contributed to America’s incredibly low level of knowledge about their civic rights, responsibilities and system of government, and might contribute to low voting rates as well. 

But while history and civic knowledge is crucial, many of today’s civic challenges, as seen through recent crises, are more complex. The social isolation and alienation, sharing of online misinformation, and hateful polarization that helped contribute to recent events can’t neatly be solved by content classes alone. 

Solving these issues, experts say, requires a more holistic approach. “Both enterprises are anchored in relationships,” said Robert J. Jagers, vice president of research at CASEL. History provides context to what happened in the past, while SEL helps students assess how they should behave in the future. 

A positive school culture with standards and codes of behavior, he said, is SEL that also naturally helps students prepare for living in a democracy. “SEL is civic socialization, it’s relational, helping you to understand yourself in connection with other people,” Jagers said. “Your own thoughts and emotions and behaviors, how to be reserved when it’s appropriate, when you do that in a group. You learn how to do that by extension as the groups get larger, and the contexts get different.” 

Civics skills where SEL plays a part

As the connection between civics and SEL becomes stronger, educators and programs are finding ways to highlight how SEL improves the civic skills needed to meet twenty-first century challenges. 

Media literacy is an important civic skill. Research shows that a majority of students can’t discern the truth of what they read or see online, and the “fake news” shared on social media has been a driver of polarization and civil unrest. Yet investigating the emotions behind how we share and what we believe on social media is a crucial part of media literacy that often doesn’t get addressed, said librarian and author Jennifer LaGarde. 

Social-emotional learning can help students identify the why behind what they share, she said, and understand the important role managing emotions plays. 

In the new book "Developing Digital Detectives: Essential Lessons for Discerning Fact from Fiction in the 'Fake News' Era," LaGarde and co-author Darren Hudgins say that before fact checking an online claim, students need to do an “emotion check” first. 

“We know that one of the ways to get us to click and hit ‘share’ is to trigger an emotion,” LaGarde said. “Once that emotion is triggered, the flight or fight part of our brain is triggered, and then it doesn’t matter what we know about fact checking. The emotion has taken over.” 


The inquiry-driven College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, developed by the National Council for the Social Studies, weaves in relationship-building skills to get students communicating with each other as they are exploring history and civics concepts, and evaluating sources. 

Art Lewandowski, professor of teaching and learning at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, teaches preservice teachers the C3 Framework as a philosophical framework to understand state history standards. He said the inquiry-based standards weave in aspects of SEL, including building relationship and communication skills, throughout to prepare students not just for taking a test. “It’s to prepare students for civic engagement,” he said, “and preparing students to collaborate with diverse peers to solve problems.” 

And then there’s the work of learning to talk about difficult topics with those who might disagree. Research has shown that classrooms where students discuss politically controversial topics, led by a well-prepared teacher, can increase the “civic knowledge, skills and dispositions that lead to adult civic engagement.”

In times of extreme division and polarization—one where tensions run so deep nearly half of Americans think dissolution is a good idea—teaching how to “deliberate for understanding” can be a challenge. Social-emotional skills can help. 

Kara Cisco’s civics students have frequent conversations about controversial topics in her civics class, but that wouldn’t be possible, she said, without the careful, deliberate scaffolding of social-emotional skills along the way. Students are required to take different positions on the same topic, in order to get practice having empathy and understanding for another’s position. And she teaches them to use specific sentence frames to communicate understanding. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “I disagree with Jasmine’s idea,” instead of “I disagree with Jasmine.” 

“The SEL standards become the civics standards,” Cisco said. “You’re not teaching two separate things, they weave together perfectly.” 

While educators continue to blend SEL and civics, researchers are still trying to figure out a way to measure SEL’s effectiveness in producing engaged citizens. Laura Hamilton, associate vice president of Research Centers at the Educational Testing Service, called figuring out how to assess civic dispositions a “work in progress.” 

“We know how to assess knowledge,” she said. “But when you start to look at dispositions, civic engagement in the community or voting, those are harder to measure, and harder to link to what is happening in K-12 schools.” She sees promise in computer-based assessments that engage students in an activity, like presenting students with a social problem and gauging how they would respond. 


In the meantime, Cisco is hoping that the perspective-taking exercises leave an impression, and go with her students into their futures as engaged citizens. “Whenever I’m asked to give my why for teaching,” she said, “my answer is: the future of our country. This is the make it or break it generation.”

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