How did ‘dignity’ become a fighting word?

A conversation with Timothy Shriver, an early pioneer of social emotional learning in the classroom.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tim Shriver, executive director of Special Olympics, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Shriver discussed his ongoing efforts to promote social emotional learning.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Timothy Shriver is one in a growing chorus calling for kinder discourse in the United States.

As chairman of Special Olympics since 1996 and a co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Shriver has spent his life advocating for the idea of dignity. His latest endeavor is an organization called UNITE. The website for UNITE asks viewers to “join millions of Americans to reject ‘us vs. them’ thinking and stand together in common purpose.”

While the message seems broadly appealing, actually achieving unity and respectful disagreement in American politics and culture seems like a mission from a bygone era.

Facemasks, critical race theory, and books exploring LGBTQ themes have all become flash points in the last few years.

Even social and emotional learning, an approach Shriver helped implement while teaching in New Haven, Conn., public schools back in the 1980s, has become a talking point in the school-classroom-culture wars. Vox described the pushback against the approach as “conservatives’ war on emotions in the classroom.”

Social-emotional learning curricula have been adopted by schools across the country and the approach was widely considered apolitical, with conservative states like Wyoming incorporating tools to help curb a growing mental health crisis among children. But that’s changed. Some parents with children in Salt Lake County’s Canyons School District successfully petitioned to get the emotional health programming removed after they found a link to a website on sex and dating in one lesson. In Florida, which initially welcomed social-emotional learning programs, political leaders are turning their backs on the strategy according to the Tampa Bay Times. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, scheduled to give the keynote address at the Utah Republican state convention on Saturday, has led the charge in his state.

Shriver is not deterred, and is now working to teach adults to have the kinds of civil conversations children are expected to engage in at their schools. “Our country today looks like a dysfunctional high school,” Shriver said. “People working at cross purposes, people checking out, people disengaged from the content that the culture is providing.” He believes the country is suffering from a relational crisis and a big part of the problem is that Americans don’t trust one another anymore.

Now one of several “impact scholars” at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Shriver visited Utah this week to speak with local leaders, educators and students. The son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, he will deliver the U. of U.’s commencement address May 4. The Tribune interviewed Shriver about his involvement with social-emotional learning and his latest mission to help adults empathize and “practice dignity.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tim Shriver, executive director of Special Olympics, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Shriver is working to build trust among Americans and civil conversations.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What is social-emotional learning?

Social emotional learning tries to teach the skills, the attitudes and the values that optimize child development. That sounds maybe too technical, but we teach social skills and emotional skills and attitudes and values that help children develop positively: the capacity to understand social context, capacity to make good decisions and to express agency.

Why did you get involved with SEL?

We saw a huge set of challenges facing kids in schools. Kids that had behavior problems, that were opting to drop out of school and having unwanted pregnancies. We looked at what was going on underneath the surface, and we realized that there was an absence of social support and relational trust in schools. Kids didn’t feel seen or heard or understood in school. Trust, belonging, purpose and meaning needed a discipline. We need math, English and science, but we also need the teaching of social and emotional development. And so we started to shift from ‘how do we stop this problem behavior? How do we discipline kids?’ To ‘how do we actually strengthen kids so that they don’t get in trouble? Instead of, ‘how do we catch kids who have dropped out, to ‘how do we strengthen trust in school so kids won’t choose to drop out?’

You worked as a teacher in the New Haven Public Schools around that time in the 1980s?

I was a social studies teacher and taught U.S. history to 10th- and 11th-graders. And I taught English a little bit before that to ninth-graders. [School leaders] saw these underlying problems and picked me and a handful of other teachers from other schools to start collaborating and see what we could do to stop problems from repeating, to shift to primary prevention. We found a bunch of scholars who were interested in primary prevention and then we created a little collaboration of people all thinking about this and we decided to call it the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning to put the head and the heart back together in the school.

When a child acts out, how would a teacher utilizing social and emotional learning principles respond?

The most important thing in conflict is calm. Stop, calm down and think before you act. Gifted teachers who have been trained in this work can help [students] take a minute.

The second part of that tends to be dialoguing skills. What really happened? What were you feeling? What were you trying to achieve? What went wrong?

If you broke my pencil can you say you’re sorry? Can you say you’re probably going to try to get another pencil to replace it? And frequently within minutes the conflict is dissolved and the relationships are healed.

What do you think about the politicization of social-emotional learning?

It’s not a political thing. Teaching kids to calm down isn’t a Republican idea. Penicillin isn’t Democratic or Republican. Penicillin heals people when they’re sick — being able to calm down heals you when you’re stressed.

Dozens and dozens of countries are now interested in this field. I think they’re interested because we did try to build the field without polemics, without ideology, based on evidence, and we tried to do it in a way that respects teachers and families. I was trained by [James] Comer. His whole philosophy was empowering parents to take an active role in the education of their children. The whole point is to get parents involved. The more parents are involved, the better. I don’t care whether they disagree with me or not, I want them involved. Let’s have a conversation. Disagreement is part of America. It’s part of democracy, it’s healthy. I just would like to have it in a way that allows us to optimize the chances that we get solutions that are good for kids.

How are you going to change the discourse with your organization UNITE?

We’re just trying to reveal to people the ways in which contempt has infiltrated their lives. Most people are not aware of it. We don’t have to tell them what to do, just have a discussion. Challenge yourself. Invite yourself. Who’s your best self? That’s the question. Create a conversation so that people can dialogue about how to change it, and then ultimately create tools for people that want to change so that they can do so. It’s pretty easy. Treat your fellow Americans with dignity. Full stop. That’s the invitation.