“Culturally Divisive” Topics, or Social-Emotional Learning as the Foundations of Democracy

Children with backpacks
A view of young children walking away, all wearing backpacks
Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

This week, we received a great question from one of our parent feedback surveys that we thought would make an excellent blog post. The question was: How does Treehouse Learning teach socially or culturally divisive subjects? First, we don’t actually “teach” any divisive topic at Treehouse Learning! Our role is to create the social emotional, physical, and cognitive foundations for all future learning and development, and this also includes the social and emotional foundations for democracy and global citizenship.

We embrace that children notice things and ask questions. In fact, they are wired to learn about the world through observations and questions. When a child asks a question, we always seek to answer accurately and matter-of-factly, and at an age-appropriate level. Some questions come with curiosity on the part of adults around children as well, such as “Why do you want to know?” or “Tell me more!”

Noticing and asking questions, as well as learning to simultaneously hold many complexities are all associated with a positive mental state and overall wellbeing. Consider the following quote by educator and author, Nick Terrones in his book, A Can of Worms: Fearless Conversations with Toddlers.

“Two key skills for participants in a democracy are the capacity to hold complexity and to understand multiple truths and perspectives. For a democracy to thrive, its members need to be able to talk and think together across our differing experiences, perspectives, and values.”

We do this by exploring the world around us, learning to ask questions, thinking about thinking (how do we construct knowledge?), and developing positive self-concepts and pro-social, interpersonal communication tools. This includes empathy, care, and compassion! However, each of these concepts may also potentially exist at the intersection of many national cultural “debates” about justice or equity, and which are often inappropriately conflated with SEL, or Social-Emotional Learning. Check out this article for more: Social-Emotional Learning Persists Despite Political Backlash (edweek.org)  The personal values, beliefs, and viewpoints as a family are yours to discuss at home because SEL is actually about life skills, not divisive topics!

At Treehouse Learning, we talk about the world around us with the developmental objective of supporting the process of making meaning of the world. This begins through the acquisition of language, by noticing sameness and differences, and an initial “grammar stage” of naming and labeling the world around us. Understanding “same vs different” is a cognitive exercise that has real-world implications.

We use a foundation of SEL as well as a framework of Montessori-inspired Peace curriculum/approach to connect the concepts of respect and care for Self to respect and care for Others and respect and care for the Planet.  We explore the world beginning with what we know via our own five senses, or that which can be directly observed or experienced.  As a child develops, our initial reference point for meaning-making begins from our own perspectives (think of concentric circles spiraling outward from us) and then expands outward. As we grow, children develop the concept of “theory of mind,” or ascribing a different mental state to others. The roots of empathy, or connection to the experience and emotions of another, emerge only after we’ve developed Theory of Mind, or the ability to comprehend that others have a different experience, and therefore mental state, than us. 

An image of hands on a tree log
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Through books, language, conversations, and stories that reflect the world around us, we can discover that despite the differences in our stories, faces, and names, we’re all equal!  At the core, every single one of us has intrinsic value and worth, simply because we are alive and on this planet. We also encourage that through our differences and sameness, each of us can contribute or share our gifts for the sake of creating a community feeling. Even babies can understand the concept of fair versus unfair or what is beneficial or harmful to the creation of a community feeling. We use storytelling and perspective-taking to create a context for empathy, concern for others, and care for our entire living system, all of which represent the roots and seeds of justice. We are teaching peace, connection, and cooperation! 

Finally, to put our work at Treehouse Learning into context within a larger conversation around socially divisive topics, we live in a very polarizing political climate! Our national political landscape is often characterized by an “Us vs. Them” mentality. In fact, last weekend, our Federal Government narrowly avoided/postponed a government shutdown with a last-minute compromise, which in itself prompted more chaos over accusations centering around those who compromised or cooperated with the “other side.” From a child development perspective, one could easily argue that such behavior is absolutely anti-social, dysfunctional, and harmful to the sense of “community feeling.”

Oh, how we wish that our Federal Government would spend a week with us at Treehouse Learning, where the so-called leaders of our government would learn from OUR CHILDREN all about sharing, cooperation, and finding solutions where everyone’s needs are met! Oh, how we wish the entire world could learn from OUR CHILDREN about how we treat others with KINDNESS and RESPECT! Oh, how we wish corporations and industries would also help care for our “spaces and our places” with as much empathy and compassion as care for ourselves and one another! 

A circle of hands coming together
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

We seek to facilitate the opportunities that lead to learning based on collaboration, connection, cooperation, respect, and the shared dignity of every single human being! At the end of the day, via our shared and inevitable common humanity, we are connected to all other living and non-living beings here on earth. Our Life Tasks are all about cultivating community, seeing one another, and building belonging. We hope this helps to answer any questions about how we approach “culturally sensitive” subjects, intentionally, thoughtfully, and as part of a larger family-program community where values are being taught at home, by parents. Our hope is that children, adults, and parents alike all grow with the tools that support the well-being of individuals and our planet!

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