Achieving Civic Competence With Social Studies and SEL

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By Emily Hemingway

The National Council for the Social Studies defines social studies as “the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence” (NCSS, 1994, vii). NCSS published national curriculum standards for the first time in 1994, and its 2010 revision has a particularly strong focus on civic education. According to NCSS, educating young people about democratic ideas and values is vital to our future. Even more, celebrating all forms of diversity in these learners “embodies the democratic goal of embracing pluralism” (NCSS, 2010, Introduction, para. 5).

If promoting civic competence, educating forward-thinking young people, and embracing diversity are three main goals of social studies education, educators can strengthen students’ academic learning through explicit instruction of social and emotional skills. Social and emotional learning is how we “develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, n.d.). Showing social and emotional competence means demonstrating the skills of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control— the same competencies that social studies students need to develop in order to meet NCSS’s goals for educating citizens who are civic minded, socially responsible, and inclusive of all people.

High Standards for Learning

Academic disciplines typically have both content standards and curriculum standards, which refer to different aspects of building a robust curriculum. Content standards describe what students should know and understand, while curriculum standards (sometimes called “practice” or “process” standards) provide a framework for how students can think about big ideas within the discipline. NCSS describes curriculum standards as “a holistic lens through which to view disciplinary content standards and state standards” (NCSS, 2010, Introduction, para. 7).

In social studies, for example, content standards might include learning about reasons for immigration to the United States, while the process standards within the theme of culture encourage students to understand how cultures shift and change over time (NCSS, 2010). There are 10 interrelated themes in the NCSS Standards that encourage students to think deeply about social studies and make enduring connections within the content they learn. For educators, these themes are an important tool for making past events relevant and meaningful for today’s students (Herczog, 2010).

Educators can strengthen students’ academic learning through explicit instruction of social and emotional skills.

Social Studies Themes

The themes of the NCSS Standards are big ideas that serve as touchstones for students of all ages. According to the NCSS Standards, social studies programs should spiral around these enduring understandings, using them as scaffolding to build a robust academic program. The themes and purposes of the 10 themes are:

  1. Culture: Learners understand how human beings create, learn, share, and adapt to culture, and appreciate the role of culture in shaping their lives and society, as well as the lives and societies of others.
  2. Time, Continuity, and Change: Learners examine the institutions, values, and beliefs of people in the past, acquire skills in historical inquiry and interpretation, and gain an understanding of how important historical events and developments have shaped the modern world.
  3. People, Places, and Environments: This theme helps learners to develop their spatial views and perspectives of the world, to understand where people, places, and resources are located and why they are there, and to explore the relationship between human beings and the environment.
  4. Individual Development and Identity: Personal identity is shaped by family, peers, culture, and institutional influences. Through this theme, students examine the factors that influence an individual’s personal identity, development, and actions.
  5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: Families and civic, educational, governmental, and religious organizations exert a major influence on people’s lives. This theme allows students to understand how institutions are formed, maintained, and changed, and to examine their influence.
  6. Power, Authority, and Governance: Learners become familiar with the purposes and functions of government, the scope and limits of authority, and the differences between democratic and nondemocratic political systems.
  7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption: This theme provides for the study of how people organize for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, and prepares students for the study of domestic and global economic issues.
  8. Science, Technology, and Society: By exploring the relationships among science, technology, and society, students develop an understanding of past and present advances in science and technology and their impact.
  9. Global Connections: The realities of    global     interdependence     require an understanding of the increasingly important and diverse global connections among world societies. This theme prepares students to study issues arising from globalization.
  10. Civic Ideals and Practices: This theme enables students to learn about the rights and responsibilities of citizens of a democracy, and to appreciate the importance of active citizenship.

(Adapted from NCSS Social Studies Standards, 2010)

Content standards and curriculum standards are closely linked, but the difference is significant. Content standards help students learn what historians know. In a social studies classroom, content standards might include learning about ancient civilizations around the world, while curriculum standards help students think like historians and anthropologists. Curriculum standards might encourage questions such as “What are the common characteristics across cultures? How is unity developed within and among cultures? What is the role of diversity and how is it maintained within a culture?” (NCSS, 2010, ch. 2, para. 2).

SEL Skills in Social Studies Classrooms

The integration of social and emotional learning in classrooms positively impacts academic performance across disciplines (Panayiotou et al., 2019). Students who were explicitly taught SEL skills through a dedicated program benefited from increased academic success, behavior, and well-being up to 18 years after instruction when compared with peers who did not receive explicit SEL instruction (Taylor et al., 2017). While learning in any academic area is deepened with SEL, social studies has a particularly strong connection with SEL.

Social studies as a discipline is focused on human relationships and how society functions, while social and emotional competence in cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control supports individuals in maintaining healthy connections with others and within communities. Social studies content often naturally teaches social skills, from how to understand the impact of one’s actions on others to making responsible decisions as a member of a community. The two areas of study have so many areas of alignment that it is no surprise that integrating SEL and social studies has been shown to be an effective method of instruction for both areas (Morris et al., 2017).

Intentionally teaching SEL skills can help students find success with both content and curriculum in social studies classrooms. For example, consider again the social studies curriculum theme of culture. Students who are explicitly taught SEL skills such as expressing strong emotions and opinions effectively, demonstrating social and civic responsibility, respecting and valuing diversity in others, and respecting differing cultural norms would be able to bring these skills into their social studies and history classrooms, deepening their understanding of historical content with their application of social and emotional skills.

While some students might be able to draw on past experiences or have an instinctive grasp of social and emotional skills, others might need explicit instruction in order to demonstrate readiness with the skills. All students benefit from that direct instruction. Social and emotional vocabulary, experience, and skills create an important set of tools for students of history and social studies to use as they strive to become civic-minded, forward-thinking, inclusive citizens.