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August 1, 2022

SEL Lessons from Fred Rogers

Do you have your tissues ready? We hope you have a box full of them. That’s because this article focuses on Fred Rogers. Surely you know him—he’s the public broadcasting saint who exhibited a miraculous level of care and patience with children. It comes as no surprise that our guy had a few social–emotional learning (SEL) lessons in his pedagogical repertoire.

Mr. Rogers likely never used the term SEL, at least not with the frequency his educational descendants do. Nevertheless, we think that sweater-clad songbird served as a modern forefather for the discipline. In fact, without his pioneering work in the way we teach kids about human feelings and good citizenship, SEL might not sit at the apex of K–12 teaching as it does today.

How Fred Rogers Became an SEL Pioneer

Though it’s a concept as old as time, teachers and administrators started chatting about SEL as a christened academic subject circa 1995. It’s probably not a coincidence that the release of Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence happened around this time.

The book defined SEL as a teachable entity. Specifically, Goleman pinpointed SEL as the process wherein we understand and control emotions and behavior, show empathy for others, practice basic ethics, nurture relationships, and create a positive environment.

Yep. That’s pretty much everything Fred taught on his program. He gracefully tackled the subject, whether he spoke directly to his elementary audience or conversed with the puppets who populated the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

To get concrete, his SEL lessons focused, at least in part, on awareness of the internal processes that happen when kids enter a tough or confusing situation.

Fred Rogers on the Domains of SEL

Eventually, educators broke the discipline into specific domains of SEL: executive functioning, management of emotions, and interpersonal development. No doubt Mr. Rogers tackled each of them during his 33 years on PBS.

Mr. Rogers on Executive Function

The mind is a complicated maze. That’s especially true for children.

Sometimes referred to as cognitive regulation, this SEL domain relates to memory, attentiveness, impulse control, and “cognitive flexibility,” which means the ability to oscillate between multiple concepts and ideas at once. That last one is perhaps the most pressing.

Since educators have gained a clearer understanding of learning differences and neurodivergences that impact executive function, mastering SEL instruction has grown even more vital. While no child is immune to the confusion that occurs when a cloud of thoughts and feelings bubbles up, kids with ADHD and similar cognitive conditions experience heightened obstacles.

Mr. Rogers was ahead of the game in this regard. In an interview with Autism Speaks, Alan Friedman, director of development for The Fred Rogers Company, discusses the legacy Fred left with kids and families who have learning differences.

“The Fred Rogers Company has several file folders filled with letters from parents and teachers who say that, for children with autism, watching and reflecting on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helps decrease anxiety and excitability,” he said.

While the show was not made specifically for children with autism, or any particular learning difference for that matter, there is no question that the scenarios presented and discussed can help kids rearticulate multilayered and disorienting thoughts.

In this regard, research into video modeling has proven effective in helping kids break down complex and conflicting emotions. And this is exactly what Fred Rogers did in each episode. Through a visual medium, he listened to kids, asked questions about their feelings, validated what was happening, and never responded with judgement.

Mr. Rogers on Acknowledging Emotion

There are multidimensional feelings. And then there are abrupt and major emotions that lead to outbursts when expressed and lingering sadness when repressed. Mr. Rogers found a path toward balance.

In a nutshell, this SEL domain focuses on helping kids understand their big feelings and express them in a healthy manner. From getting a first haircut to losing a beloved pet, some experiences feel insurmountable to a young person, and Fred sought to help his audience navigate them.

It turns out Mr. Rogers wrote and sang a song about the discipline of managing feelings. Notice how he manages to communicate with kids on their level and speaks to them with the empathy he expects them to express in turn.

Mr. Rogers on Interpersonal Skills

A child’s personal emotions can be a difficult beast to conquer. But when you factor in how your students react to other people’s feelings, then your job becomes way more difficult. The final SEL domain centers on interpersonal skills—specifically, how a person treats other people. This hinges on mastering prosocial behavior, picking up on social cues, and learning how to mitigate and resolve conflict.

Mr. Rogers was all about imagination. Within the framework of made-up scenarios, he helped children handle negative feelings and situations in a productive manner. At the same time, Fred taught children about their ability not only to mitigate negativity, but to also create positivity. Of course, this translated flawlessly into the art of developing fulfilling relationships, which relies more on practicing goodness and kindness than merely deflecting negativity.

And there’s no question we could use a lot more of that right now.

Fred Rogers and SEL Competencies

The three domains of SEL focus on the brain’s internal mechanisms. The five competencies of SEL, however, highlight the conscious efforts we make in light of our nature as imperfect beings. These competencies look at kindness as a virtue, a discipline you work to perfect, rather than taking for granted that human goodness is an ingrained personality trait.

In this section, we’re going straight to the source. We’ll provide the exact words that Fred Rogers used to espouse these five paramount SEL criteria.

SEL Competency 1: Self-Awareness

Self-awareness means becoming more aware of your own emotions and thoughts. Why are you feeling a certain way? How does expressing feelings impact your behavior? How do those emotions and the way you express them affect those around you?

Mr. Rogers on Self-Awareness

“When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

SEL Competency 2: Self-Management

Once you become aware of those emotions and thoughts, it’s important to manage the way you react to them. Feelings are healthy and natural, of course. But we must be wholly conscious of how those emotions impact others.

Mr. Rogers on Self-Management

“Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”

SEL Competency 3: Social Awareness

This SEL competency asks students to reflect on the feelings of others. Specifically, social awareness means treating the actions of friends and classmates with empathy and understanding.

Mr. Rogers on Social Awareness

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

SEL Competency 4: Relationship Skills

Relationship skills include learning how to communicate your feelings and needs, as well as listening to others. Success means being able to resolve conflict peacefully and understand when to either ask for help or offer it.

Mr. Rogers on Relationship Skills

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has or ever will have something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

SEL Competency 5: Making Responsible Decisions

And then there’s ethics or making responsible decisions, which measures everything a child has learned in their social–emotional education. If the decision helps others, then you better believe it’s a responsible one.

Mr. Rogers on Making Responsible Decisions

“All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”


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