When I was 17 years old, I stood on the edge of a 300-foot cliff, looking out over Lake Superior, watching the waves crash below as the gulls above were buffeted by wind. I hesitated, and then I stepped over the edge.
Luckily, I had double-checked my harness, made sure my partner was on belay and the rope securely fastened. My high school graduation gift from my dad was this 21-day wilderness adventure with Minnesota Outward Bound.
One year later, my dad — upon telling the family he had only six months to live — insisted that I continue with my planned summer job in Glacier National Park. He suspected how important that summer would be. And he was right.
That summer I learned how to work inside of and lead a team. I learned how to pick myself up from failure and work through challenges. I learned that I was capable of more than I ever believed. Later, I learned how to move on from grief.
The two experiences changed me forever. They helped me build “character,” or, in today’s language, the social-emotional skills of resiliency and self-worth. I doubt that, but for them, I would be the mayor of St. Paul.
Every day in our cities, children deal with the effects of traumas and challenges that defy understanding: Homelessness, family mental illness, substance abuse, loss of a parent, daily hunger, even war and displacement. Given these difficult realities, our teachers know that the curriculum and instruction they provide are not always enough to help children build the social skills, the grit and the perseverance they need to both survive and thrive, becoming as successful as they can be.
Whether facing extraordinary trauma or the everyday challenges of life, all our children and youth need the social and emotional preparation that enables them to be engaged in learning, effectively deal with and learn from failures, work through their conflicts, and become confident, caring and contributing citizens of our communities. To do that, our educational programs — both inside school and out — must focus on the development of the whole child.
This is why I am so thrilled to join with the University of Minnesota and U.S. Department of Education Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton in my role as president of the National League of Cities to welcome more than 400 superintendents, mayors, and members of the philanthropic, faith and youth-serving communities to campus today and tomorrow. The conference, hosted by the University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, will feature researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia, demonstrating how two cities have taken a communitywide approach to social and emotional development and how these data inspired and informed action and investments.
The Twin Cities is moving to the forefront of communities that are willing to devote support to developing this crucial aspect of learning. Locally, Generation Next is defining the best ways to ensure all youth are socially and emotionally equipped to not only learn, but to persist in their learning. In St. Paul, we are hiring staff with youth development backgrounds to engage youth holistically.
Broadening our understanding of how our youth are doing across an array of important social and personal skills isn’t just an educational must-do, but an economic must-do. These crucial skills are what employers need in their workforce.
The evidence for the importance of a systematic focus on social-emotional learning is so clear that it has to be incorporated into our work — from the goals we set to the data we collect to how we work in schools, programs, families and neighborhoods.
How will we build confident, resilient children who can navigate life’s hardships with confidence, to emerge on the other side triumphant or at least determined to keep trying? Will we teach them how to step off a cliff and climb back up or will we leave them dangling, with no one on belay? Let’s give all of our children the skills they need to grow and prosper. There is no more important role we can play.
Chris Coleman is mayor of St. Paul.