Dr. Joseph Lee Talks About Why SEL / Social and Emotional Learning Matters

gender nonconformity kids

Have you ever wondered if SEL (social and emotional learning) in school and classrooms really matters? I’ve been exploring this question a lot about over the past year, as well trying to understand the recent increase in parental and political pushback in the US specifically that is putting the future of SEL in schools at risk.  

I wanted to get into a deep conversation about SEL for the show, and so I reached out Dr. Joseph Lee, a psychiatrist with a special interest in social and emotional learning and helping people achieve what he calls optimal mental healthiness.

We had exactly the conversation I was hoping we would, as we got into so many important topics, including the state of children and young adult’s mental health today, demystifying what SEL or social emotional learning actually is, why SEL matters, how it’s best introduced in schools, the limitations in the current educational model for social emotional learning curriculums, what the pushback against SEL is really about, and what it’s at stake if our children aren’t provided with social and emotional learning opportunities. I think this is such an important and timely conversation – I hope that you enjoy it and that you help me amplify this episode by sharing it in your communities.


About Dr. Joseph Lee

Dr. Joseph Lee, MD., is a Psychiatrist in private practice in Redondo Beach, California. He is also an educator in social and emotional learning (SEL) and provides individual and group supervision to licensed therapists looking to add mental healthiness and SEL principles to their own practices. Dr. Lee has a medical doctorate from University Of California, Los Angeles, School Of Medicine.


Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • Dr. Joseph Lee’s thoughts on the state of children and young adult’s mental health today
  • What SEL or social emotional learning actually is and why it matters
  • Ways that SEL can be weaved into traditional educational curriculum, as well as the use of specific SEL curriculum
  • What social and emotional learning inside schools looks like in practice
  • The “why” behind the pushback against SEL in the recent years and what’s it’s at stake if we lose the ability to teach SEL in classrooms


Resources mentioned for Why SEL Matters

This Season’s Sponsor: Outschool

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Episode Transcript

Debbie Reber  00:00

Tilt Parenting is proud to partner with Outschool this podcast season. Outschool’s unique approach to education empowers differently wired kids ages three through 18, to dive into their interests in small live classes designed to foster a love of learning, create connections and cultivate independence, learn more at outschool.com/tilt.

Joseph Lee  00:23

But if we were all aware of our own sort of needs physically, emotionally, which is part of this, like emotional intelligence piece, we recognize similar needs and feelings and other people. And then we can have relatibility, connection, empathy, that would be the social intelligence piece, then one, I think we’d all get along better and be a lot more caring, compassionate people. But too, for example, learning about history, then you could see like, oh, I can see that went wrong, can see how that sort of conflict happened between people because they couldn’t acknowledge that somebody else’s worldview or perspective was fundamentally different from theirs. And they saw that as a problem that you didn’t see it the same way.

Debbie Reber  01:13

Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host, Debbie Reber. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past year is the importance of SEL or social and emotional learning in classrooms, as well as a recent increase in parental and political pushback that is putting the future of SEL in schools at risk. I wanted to get into a deep conversation about SEL for this show. And so I reached out to Dr. Joseph Lee, a psychiatrist with a special interest in social and emotional learning and helping people achieve what he calls optimal mental healthiness. We had exactly the conversation I was hoping for as we got into so many important topics, including the state of children and young adults mental health today, demystifying what SEL or social emotional learning actually is, how it’s best introduced in schools. The limitations in the current educational model for social emotional learning curriculums, what the pushback against Sel is really about and what’s at stake if our children aren’t provided with social and emotional learning opportunities. I think this is such an important and timely conversation. I hope you enjoy it and that you help me amplify this episode by sharing it in your communities and with others who would benefit from the lesson. And a little bit more about my guest. Joe is a psychiatrist in private practice in Redondo Beach, California. He’s also an educator in social and emotional learning and provides individual and group supervision to licensed therapists looking to add mental healthiness and SEL principles to their own practices. He has a medical doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. Before I get to our conversation, a quick reminder that tonight, Tuesday, August 23, I’m hosting a special live event with screens and tech using kids expert, Dr. Devorah Heitner, called The Big Tech Reset. Join us for a 90-minute workshop where we’ll talk about kids obsession with things like Discord and social media, managing kids deep interest in online gaming, the impact of screen life on our kids asleep, concerns about accessing inappropriate online content, social conflicts stemming from their tech use that is adding to stress and much more. And Devorah will also be taking questions to get into specific ideas and solutions. It’s all happening tonight, August 23, at 7pm Eastern and the recording will be made available for people who register but can’t attend live. Learn more and sign up at tiltparenting.com/techreset. That’s tiltparenting.com/techreset. Thanks so much. And here is my conversation with Dr. Joseph Lee about social and emotional learning.

Debbie Reber  04:19

Hey, Joe, welcome to the podcast.

Joseph Lee  04:22

Hi, Debbie. Thanks for having me.

Debbie Reber  04:23

Yeah, I am really looking forward to this conversation and so happy we are able to squeeze it into the summer season because I think it’s a really important topic. It’s very current a lot to get into. But before we do that, I always ask my guests to introduce themselves in their own way. And also as part of that, I love this idea of learning more about your personal why what got you into doing this work and what you love about doing it so much.

Joseph Lee  04:49

My broad sort of professional background is that I am a psychiatrist, but my actual day to day clinical practice, which is not the case for me Most psychiatrists is that day to day practices as a therapist, so I kind of do both. But I am a full time therapist, I have a full time private practice, I’ve been doing that now, including, including my residency for over 20 years. So professionally, that’s sort of my background. And then, after sort of my formal training, starting my psychotherapy practice a few years early on, is when I became a parent, which is an interesting sort of transformative life process, right? And then I think, as you raise kids, then sometimes the things that you might have learned, I don’t know more academically about child development, you know, what helps people thrive? What is it really like to be mentally healthy? They all kind of feel super relevant, because now you have your own kid, and you kind of want to do right by them. And so I would say that that was actually a different learning process outside of my formal sort of education as a psychiatrist, where, I think a big shift, you know, for me, maybe especially coming from psychiatry, which is in a medical model, which is sort of like, how do you help when things go wrong, right? Versus I think becoming a parent, you want things to go? Well, right, you’re thinking more about well being and thriving. And, you know, maybe surprisingly, not. So surprisingly, that overlap of learning something from a medical model doesn’t really cover a lot of what it is to be healthy, emotionally, psychologically, mentally healthy. So I’ve been talking about all that, learning about it, speaking about that, ever since I became a parent and kind of talked about all that under a larger banner of what I call mental healthiness. And, and that’s a lot more along the lines of, you know, again, what does it take for a person to be thriving and healthy, as opposed to maybe my sort of professional background which starts with, you know, how to be not sick, and they’re not really the same thing. So somewhere in there, that’s definitely the why, you know, becoming a parent and one of my kids now I got two kids, one of my kids to thrive, be healthy, and whatever we as parents, whatever educational experiences, school environments, learning environments, that we kind of introduced them to how all those things we think would be most optimal for them to be thriving kids.

Debbie Reber  07:21

I love this phrase of mental healthiness, too. It makes so much sense. And as you say that, you know, I’m watching a Ken Burns documentary on the state of adolescent mental health right now, we know the Surgeon General report that came out in the I think earlier in 2022 talked about what a crisis we’re really in right now. So before we even move on to social emotional learning, I’m just wondering like, what are you seeing in your practice and in your work in terms of the state of children and young adult mental health today?

Joseph Lee  07:52

Well, I think even the reason why I think I use that phrase mental healthiness is to distinguish it from a more common phrase mental health, which for the most part, when people talk about mental health, and they use that phrase, they are talking about mental illness or some other process of emotional suffering, right. So mental health, as a term, is really kind of pretty, euphemistic to really talk about something more serious in negative, you know, which is mental suffering, right? So mental healthiness as a term has to really try and emphasize that we are talking about actual well being right. But along the lines, okay, so what are we seeing in the context of right now, at this moment in time with young people, let’s say, I will say the good thing is, and the optimistic thing, and the encouraging thing is, I would say, from my generation, and younger, there definitely is a pretty societal transformation or openness to the idea that our mental well being is crucial. It’s valid in it’s a well integrated part of our health. And so the idea of spending energy and resources on your mental health, I think, has become a much more normal idea. And so I think in that sense, it’s good. Another way to say that is, you know, my generation and older, I think, really struggles with the idea of investing in our mental health and our well-being right. So in that sense, I think, you know, it’s definitely a good thing that I think the ability to have conversations, the ability to address and acknowledge mental health challenges, is a lot easier conversation to have. So in that sense, having the dialogue and then acknowledging that this is worth addressing, trying to do something about it, trying to do better, is definitely a dialogue that’s happening. So that’s the good news. The challenge is that, you know, I do think that school pressures, achievement oriented sort of educational goals that has really kind of been the norm, the degree of difficulty He has of getting into college, and what it takes these days, and how early people start thinking about that. And that’s just to get the college that’s, you know, beyond that with higher education. So I think the sort of academic pressures have definitely built up over time. I think the social pressures that have always existed, I think are there and are still there, the way that kids interact, and sort of put themselves out there with social media is different than I think, you know, when I grew up, you know, middle school was pretty difficult already, but to kind of already have, like this permanent record of yourself online and those kinds of pressures. That’s a new challenge. I think the way in which information comes to us and adults, we were dealing with this right now, too, which is the information that comes to us through the internet or online, we have to negotiate a lot more practice and exercise judgment about like, what’s reliable, unreliable, truthful, and not truthful. And I think young people have to develop this new skill of discernment. That’s also pretty stressful, you know. And then on top of that, the last two and a half years of living through a pandemic, it’s affected everybody, obviously, nobody on this planet has not been affected by it. But I think people who are school aged and younger and teen and transitioning in their own sort of life developmental stage, that’s been a unique challenge, you know, because of the instability, unpredictability and erratic regularities of what kids have gone through in the last couple of years. You know, so it’s a lot, you know, it’s, it’s worth acknowledging that is generationally, like an additional sort of thing that this group of kids is dealing with, and has dealt with that prior generations just can’t relate to.

Debbie Reber  11:59

I agree with that. It’s something you know, I talked with Dr. John Duffy on the show about this, too, that I think so many of us as adults, we’re like, well, but I was your age. And you know, we think that we can really relate what our kids might be going through in middle school in high school with our own youth. And we really can’t like it’s a different level, different, different world. So I would love to pivot then to what we’re talking about today, which I think is more along the lines of promoting mental healthiness. And that’s to talk about social emotional learning. Sel is something that you know, as the parent of a differently wired kid, I learned about it through that context, right, that this is something that’s important for kids who may struggle reading social cues, or, you know, who may have some lagging skills and social emotional literacy, that that’s really important for them. But now I know that it’s really something that every human every kid certainly needs access to. So I would love to just start by understanding how would you define SEL, social, emotional learning. What actually is it?

Joseph Lee  13:00

So, I think social emotional learning, as a movement is actually a response to, I think, a pretty pervasive but false idea that kind of culturally says, this is the false idea. The false idea is that as human beings, the defining characteristic of who we are, and what makes us special, is our ability to think and be logical and rational. And even though that’s true, like if you compared human beings, Homo sapiens to like, apes and dolphins and other species with big brains, like we are, like, smarter than, but I think it’s turned into this sort of even the way that we do education, you know, it’s about knowledge and facts, and even, you know, conversations about critical thinking how important that is, I think somewhere along the way, by inadvertently sort of putting, being rational and logical on a pedestal, it has inadvertently, really realized the value of our feelings and our emotions. And I think that because of that, I think generationally, you’re talking about sort of our generation or older generations, not being able to really relate to what younger kids are going through. I think one of the hallmark features of people my age and above is that we did live through a time where emotions and feelings were very much trivialized as being less than, and it was, you know, better to be logical or rational about decision making, or that if you’re emotional, that, you know, oh, we can’t talk until you calm down, or to you know, suck it up. You know, like, these are really pretty common things told to us as kids, and now we’re all adults, with that sort of messaging ingrained pretty deeply in us. So that’s the context in which I think social emotional learning as a sort of formalized philosophy of education developed as a response to, and as a correction to that. What it is then ultimately, though, is the idea that says that our emotional and our social life as human beings, is a core aspect of being a human being. And in certain ways, if we grow up in healthy environments with validating caregivers, then we can be in tune with that natural hardwiring that allows us to be healthy emotional beings and healthy social beings. But without that validation, without that support, without having all of our needs met, then a lot of negative things can happen regarding our internal emotional life and our ability to connect with people on a meaningful level socially. So I think social emotional learning is just something that gives space to that nurturing of our emotional well being, our emotional intelligence or emotional skill set. And then that emotional skill set and experience then also translates into being able to connect with people more easily, more readily, more deeply. On a social level, I think, you know, the term social intelligence was made popular by Daniel Goleman, who then also went on to write a different book, Social intelligence. And he kind of, you know, connects them as basically being you know, social intelligence is sort of a different particular manifestation of our emotional intelligence. And so these are very interesting related ideas. And I think some of that research that kind of maybe happened around that time with Daniel Goleman, and other people who’ve done the emotions research where or sociology that’s kind of like folded in with maybe psychology research has kind of become the research and scientific basis of validating social emotional learning as an idea, as a teachable concept that has things that you can then translate into, like a curriculum. So that’s kind of like the big picture of, you know, what is social emotional learning, but also why, like in a historical sort of why now context, why is it important? Why is it irreplaceable, important? And why does it belong in education?

Debbie Reber  17:16

And now, a quick break for a word from our sponsor. I don’t know about you, but I am always on the lookout for resources that can help differently wired kids build skills in areas like executive functioning, emotional regulation, and better understanding how their brain is wired, especially during the back to school season. So I love that Outschool offers tons of live classes like the power of impulse control sketchnoting for the ADHD, brain, mastering math with Minecraft, autism, Lego club, executive function, skills for success, friendship, skills, and much more. In these and more than 150,000 other classes on every topic under the sun, Outschool takes kids ages three to 18, beyond the classroom, through small live classes, taught by expert teachers all through an accessible online learning platform, learn more about how outschool can support your child’s journey at outschool.com/tilt. And use the code tilt to get a $20 credit toward your first class. And now back to the show.

Debbie Reber  18:23

I’d love to look at or learn more about how it is something that’s taught in schools. You know, you said it’s a teachable concept. And there are curriculum. And I know, my understanding is there are different types of SEL curriculum. But is it something that’s weaved into the fabric of traditional educational models, generally speaking? Or does it have to be introduced through a very specific curriculum?

Joseph Lee  18:46

I think, you know, the most idealistic sense that can and ought to be integrated. I think there’s a different conversation about how our educational structure is built now, which is very subject oriented and achievement oriented, which structurally actually makes it very hard to do anything that’s particularly integrated, actually, anything, you know, it’s hard to integrate math and history or writing and history or science together. So I think our subject oriented way of teaching is actually not particularly well set up for this kind of integrated learning. So that being said, I do think the introduction of social emotional learning has been more like here’s an additional subject. But that, I think, is not necessarily because it’s the best way or the only way to do that. But it’s probably the easiest entry point to try to add something that is immensely valuable, into, I think, a more formal sort of educational curriculum. I say that because no more ideal sense, because again, we are social emotional beings at our core, it should be relevant to all learning. But in terms of how it’s actually integrated, I think it’s a challenge.

Debbie Reber  20:12

I think that you know, something you said earlier about we even as parents and validating our kids emotions and getting more curious about the emotional social lives of our kids, that’s something we may be doing at home. And what you’re saying, or what I hear you saying is that ideally, that’s something educators would be bringing to their classrooms as well. So they would be kind of teaching through that lens, but that the structure of school right now doesn’t really allow for that level, it’s something a teacher would have to go kind of above and beyond, and really prioritize making that part of the classroom culture.

Joseph Lee  20:43

Right. And I think sort of in that measurement, sort of style of educational assessment, we leaned heavily into the R’s, right reading, writing, and arithmetic. Whereas the easiest, I think, to introduce social emotional concepts would be through what I guess people will call social studies, you know, history, psychology, sociology, but that’s not one of the R’s. Right? And that’s harder to measure. And unfortunately, as again, stopping talking about topical things, you know, teaching history has become a controversial thing. So even the idea of what is taught in the context of social studies, is not as standardized or straightforward, as, you know, reading proficiency, writing proficiency, math proficiency, for example. So even more, so it’s harder to like find the the segue of the entry point to talk about the value, and the impact, and the relevancy of how human beings are in the world now, and historically, how we interact, the impact that those interactions have, when we have good interactions with each other, the consequences of harm, you know, when human beings both now and historically, have had conflict, or have not been thoughtful of other people’s perspective and viewpoints, you can find that thread that that very well says that, you know, if we were all aware of our own sort of needs, physically, emotionally, which is part of this, like emotional intelligence piece, we recognize similar needs and feelings and other people. And then we can have relatability, connection, empathy, that would be the social intelligence piece, then one, I think we’d all get along better and be a lot more caring, compassionate people. But two, for example, learning about history, then you can see like, oh, I can see how that went wrong, can see how that sort of conflict happened between people because they couldn’t acknowledge that somebody else’s worldview or perspective was fundamentally different from theirs. And they saw that as a problem that you didn’t see it the same way, as opposed to, I think a natural process of learning is that we tend to become more competent people. You know, this is a general sort of thought about how we learn naturally, biologically, neurologically, we learn by learning more, right? You know, we all tend to come into the world with relatively simple ideas and schema that are pretty black and white. And as we are exposed to more experiences, as we’re guided by other people who have more experience, or experts point us in the right direction, we gain more knowledge and perspective. And then we develop more nuance, and competency, and expertise, because we actually can see more from more perspectives. And that’s a healthy way of learning. That’s a natural way of learning. And so you know, the perspective shifting, the recognizing that what we feel in ourselves is valid, recognizing that we can also see it in other people, that social emotional learning and like I said, you can very much weave that into different ways in which we teach kids relevant things. But the entry point in the way that are subject based testing based achievement based educational system is constructed makes it seem like social emotional learnings like yet another subject, we got to cram in there.

Debbie Reber  24:21

Okay, so you just shared so much my mind is racing, I feel like I have this different level of understanding. And so I’m just going to connect the dots for myself, and maybe that will help listeners if they’re feeling the way I am too. But what I’m hearing you say or what’s making sense to me, is that subjects in which there’s any level of interpretation of something so like math, science, it’s like fact base this is what we do, but any other subject literature, history, anything we’re doing, where we’re trying to make sense of and make connections and have deeper understandings. But interpretations can be personal. There’s no definitive One way to look at something, or at least certainly with history, there are definitive facts about things that happened, but you know, interpreting and how do we make meaning from those things? That’s really what we’re talking about with social emotional learning. And so what I’m wondering is, you did share a lot of things, like having conversations about certain conflicts and trying to understand what we can learn from that as a society, like, what are some other ways that SEL can be weaved into the school if it’s not a specific SEL curriculum, but like, how else does it show up as a classroom discussions? I’m just trying to really understand what it would look like inside of a school what parents might be if they get a note, we’re doing SEL in school? What might that mean?

Joseph Lee  25:44

I know that some of the programs that have been more sort of like readily integrated to certain schools are, like mindfulness based practices, right? And mindfulness is this idea and practice, where if we give ourselves enough time and space, and we kind of like focus inward, we can develop a skill, where we can notice more about what our thoughts, what our feelings are. And there’s value in itself of being a more mindful person. Because I think one, you become less reactive, you can sort of be a little bit more conscientious, thoughtful, deliberate about making judgments, which then affects your decision making. There is a calming, emotionally regulating sort of experience that can come with the practice of mindfulness meditation, that also has a larger impact. If you practice it regularly, you can become generally more emotionally regulated. I think that that’s something I know that has been introduced, and then sort of studied as something that if it’s introduced, what is the impact that it has? I know that some of the data says that from a behavioral standpoint, kids who historically might have, I don’t know, gotten in trouble, or something like that, in a behavioral sense, found benefit from being able to do that? I think it does, because I think it allows people to be more conscientious about their thoughts and less impulsive. And I think it improves class discussion, it probably deepens the ability to think more critically, which, you know, in a group environment, I think we learn from each other in different ways that we will learn from reading something on our own. So deeper classroom discussions, hearing other people’s thought processes, I think oftentimes is what gets us to think differently. Like, for example, and you know, oftentimes these podcasts formats is exactly what causes me to think about new things, or vice versa, you know, hopefully, your audience or will hear our dialogue, our conversation today. And it’ll sort of stimulate their thinking about things that they had never considered because not because our conversation will be thorough, but because it’s just stimulating the conversation in itself. So I think, you know, mindfulness has been a good, I think, starting point, because it introduces a particular teachable skill that has benefits, you know, to the person who’s practicing it. But I think it also then translates into like these richer, richer class discussions and makes people appreciate their own ability to kind of think and reflect and understand and feel something as well.

Debbie Reber  28:40

So interesting. I mean, I remember a couple years ago, there was a big backlash against mindfulness, there were a lot of articles about kids who would typically be put in timeout, like younger kids in school, who, who may be neurodivergent may be getting emotionally dysregulated, instead of being punished are sent to do some mindfulness or some other kind of meditation. And there was a big pushback against that. And I’m like, How can this be a bad thing? It’s shown to really benefit kids’ nervous systems and help them with emotional regulation. So as you’re sharing that, I’m thinking about that. And I’m now want to just tie it to what we’ve seen, I think, in the US, and in recent months is a real backlash against SEL from so many lenses and a push back that it’s been really hard to watch from the sidelines as a parent who, again, this has been on my radar for years, and I understand the importance for neurodivergent kids, but it is important for everybody. So I’m just wondering, from your perspective, what’s at stake if we don’t allow teachers to have the freedom and flexibility to have these more meaningful conversations about things that certain members of the population may find to be controversial CRT talking about gender studies, sexual orientation, you know, having these conversations that are important for kids to engage in and to think critically about, I’d love to just talk with you a little bit about that, that push back.

Joseph Lee  30:06

You know, at the heart of the argument against teaching things like let’s say, CRT, or expanding the scope of talking about, even more broadly, how different people are different. The pushback oftentimes is like, but how is this relevant to my kid? And I think that that’s sort of one of the most important aspects of thinking about learning in the context of being socially aware, because that’s part of the skill set of learning how to see things from a more attuned perspective, but also seeing it from somebody else’s perspective. And I think, you know, the reason why we teach history in general, let’s say, it is because, you know, we didn’t live at those times. And oftentimes, we didn’t live there, you know, it’s a different country or a different part of the world. And we do these exercises historically, you know, about, what would it have been? Like, if you grew up in X amount of time? Or would have been like, if you were, in that position? What would you have done, and those are great exercises, because I think it creates, not just deep thinking, but it creates this sort of like, broadening of perspective. And I think that if you take away the ability to do anything that seemingly says, well, that’s not relevant to my kid, then indirectly, what you’re saying is, you know, the only perspective that my kid will ever learn is the one that’s only relevant to them. And I think that’s really problematic. I think that that ultimately translates into one person having a very small worldview. And I think, you know, the larger sort of vulnerability, I think when we limit the scope of what we expose ourselves to even, you know, even as adults, in terms of what we learn, and are still learning, the cost of limiting our perspectives, or being, you know, to certain about our understanding of things, is that if the world ever presents us anything that we’ve have not been open to, and that is potentially harmful to us, then we’ll get blindsided, we’ll be unprepared, we wouldn’t have thought about, you know, the realities that things can exist outside of our belief systems. I think this is why the pandemic, you know, has been such a challenge, you know, in the United States, more so than other sort of first world countries that responded much more differently, because, like, one of the things that, you know, we didn’t really grow up with here is we don’t have a very strong like, public health experience, you know, sure our kids have gotten vaccinated, but that’s more like a sort of like a thing that we do, you know, but we don’t have this like lived experience in the United States of having done something where our choices affect the well being of like, our whole community, whereas other countries, you know, public health is just something that’s maybe a little bit more integrated. So public testing, or if everyone was supposed to, like self quarantine, and the context was given as like, well, you need to do this because we need to stop the spread of this virus that can affect everyone. That sort of more collective reasoning, that collective mindset of like we’re all in this together, was this an easier thing to digest, I think in other countries, and so when you saw like South Korea, or Taiwan respond very early, and very well. And you compare that to the resistance and the doubt, and the skepticism and the pushback that we saw here in the United States. I think that’s like a real world example of, like, what happens if you have and hold on to a mindset that says, you know, the only things that I care about are the things that relate to me, or the only things that matter are the ones that I can relate to, and everything outside of that I don’t see why it’s important. So I think introducing as a normal exercise as early as possible, the idea that we should learn about people with different lived experiences, people with different perspectives that come from different cultures or backgrounds is really important, because that is the world we live in. That is how we exist, you know, we do live surrounded by people that are different than us. The argument, I think, oftentimes in education is, well, we’re trying to help the most kids as possible. But what ends up happening with that kind of mentality is that kids who are in some sort of minority, whether that’s a racial minority, or let’s say a neurodivergent minority, because they don’t belong to that mature already their needs really get neglected. But oftentimes, unfortunately, I think that that’s the argument that’s made, which is like this doesn’t apply to either my kid or most kids. And I think that that’s unfortunately, you know, the sort of reasoning behind why we shouldn’t or we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t talk about these things, or we shouldn’t teach these things. That’s the argument that’s often made.

Debbie Reber  35:24

That was so well explained. Thank you. And it just makes me think about the global experience. So I’m just wondering, is SEL, something that is explicitly taught in other countries? I have an international audience. So I’m just wondering, is this applicable to people living in other countries? Is it more ingrained? Do you think in the classrooms and the societal structures? Is this a really uniquely American challenge that we’re facing?

Joseph Lee  35:55

I think some of the pushback that we’re experiencing right now is definitely uniquely American, there are certain things that, you know, one of the human blind spots we have towards knowing things is that we don’t know what we don’t know, right? Everyone has large areas of ignorance, because it’s impossible to know everything and our knowledge, so often is experience based or based on, you know, the resources and the people that were exposed to so so everyone has giant aspects of their understanding of things where they have blind spots. And that’s fine. Except another particular blind spot is we don’t know what we don’t know. Right. So I think one of the things that as Asian American, that I find beneficial is my lived experience of someone who’s born in the United States has lived here, my whole life is definitely someone who has very American experience. But my parents are also immigrants. And they’ve lived here, obviously, just as I’ve been alive, but their sort of culture in which they grew up as children, as teenagers, as young adults, is distinctly Asian. And so I’d say my experience is, is the one though that’s kind of exposed to both right. And so one of the unique things I think of having, let’s say, an Asian American perspective, is that you can kind of see America from a different perspective than if you were a mono-cultural American, right. I’m a bicultural American. And one of the things that is uniquely American, more so than other cultures, is the degree of individualism that we’ve normalized here, how we think it’s very normal to emphasize autonomy and personal independence. And you know, the freedom of I get to make choices for myself, which has merit but I think the idea of how individualistic we are in America is even more so than even other like, let’s say, Western European countries were like the idea of individualism came from right. So I think that there is this uniquely American aspect to the degree to which even more so the if it’s not relevant to me, I don’t see why it’s relevant. I think that’s a weird idea to people in other countries, you know, they’ve stated that way. So I think that that part’s challenged. And circled back to earlier in our conversation, though, I think that when I mentioned, I said, you know, the whole idea of social emotional learning SEL, is a response to something that is I think generationally, like in this moment in time, and I mentioned that the encouraging thing is, you know, regardless if it’s taught in schools or not, I do think that kids and young adults, now just broadly, culturally, are more socially emotionally aware, in a much more natural, intuitive way. I think it actually is really, our generation and older, that really kind of needs to, like, learn this first in a more academic, intellectual sense, and be convinced that it’s relevant. I think the challenge is that it is people of our generation or older that are the teachers and the administrators and the policymakers and the law in the people who write the laws and do all these things, right. So that’s why it’s become relevant is because like, this is a generation that needs to be convinced, because it’s not quite natural to them to believe in this idea that our social intelligence and our emotional intelligence is actually more relevant to our human experience than our like, intellectual intelligence. You know, like, that’s a hard sell to some people, you know, who are of our generation and older, but especially if you talk to you know, people are millennials or Gen Y, or kids my kids are like, yeah, like, that’s not a hard idea at all for them to accept, you know, so in that sense, I can only speak to like, again, my experience here I’m in the United States. But I do think broadly because we are a much more connected world globally, that probably, you know, there is a generational artifact about how socially emotionally naive our generation and older are. I don’t know that that’s actually a rule. I think that’s a historical kind of thing that swept up a couple of generations here in the United States where we’re just like, it’s such a foreign idea to us, and we have to, like learn it in our adulthood.

Debbie Reber  40:30

Thank you. I appreciate going deep in these things that I hope my listeners are along for the ride, I find these conversations so fascinating. I could talk about this stuff for hours. But I think we should wrap up. There’s so many ways we could close this. But is there something that you would want parents to know or to kind of leave this conversation thinking about whether that’s something they could be doing to support SEL at home? Or to be more vocal in their schools? Is there some kind of takeaway you’d like to leave people with?

Joseph Lee  41:01

Well, I think, you know, first and foremost, I think, to encourage parents that all of our children are already innately social emotional beings. So this is not really a sort of curriculum thing that truly needs to be introduced. Because it is innate, it’s natural. It is how they are because we’re all human beings, and we are innately social, emotional beings. So what we’re really talking about is almost like the resistance to the idea is the problem. And so I think if you are already a parent who understands the value of your kids’ emotional experiences, and you recognize that the quality of relationships that they have starting with you, and the other sort of caregivers in their life, are super important. And when they go into adolescence that, you know, they will shift and develop meaningful peer relationships. And those are very important. I think, if you’re already a parent that kind of sees your children in that way, more than anything, it’s just more like supporting them and scaffolding them in that normal developmental process, and not trying to be a barrier or hindrance in that process. I think in the larger conversation, we’re talking about, like the systemic, maybe barriers that invalidate those natural sort of tendencies to be emotional, the natural tendencies to be social. So that’s the bigger challenge, right? The bigger challenge is the institutional systemic barriers, where, like I said, mostly coming from people of my generation and older because their experience doesn’t tell them how important this is, aren’t willing to transform systems to make it more accommodating for ideas of integrating also into our learning school systems, educational systems, the value of social emotional skills. So mostly as encouragement, I hope, that we’re really just saying, like, support and don’t get in the way, which is a lot different than like, how do I teach my kids something? It’s hardwired into us? You know, it’s, it’s in our nature. It’s there. Right?

Debbie Reber  43:13

That’s great. Thank you. And before we say goodbye, are there places that you’d like listeners to find you and follow your work and connect on social or where are your spots?

Joseph Lee  43:25

So that term mental healthiness, if you google it anywhere, ideally, it leads to me, I got a website, mental healthiness.com Professional Facebook page, I got a Twitter which I probably need to be more active on. However, you know, throughout the course of the year, like on this podcast, different conferences, I do some regular speaking. So I think if you find me on social or through my website, you will also be able to be guided towards this and future talks that I do on topics like these.

Debbie Reber  43:58

Well, thank you. Thank you again, for everything you shared. I just so enjoyed this deep dive, and a little bit of an intellectual conversation, which I always appreciate, and thanks for the work that you do, and I just appreciate you taking the time today.

Joseph Lee  44:13

Thank you so much for having me.


Debbie Reber  44:17

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