Trust Is More Than a Feeling, Cooperation More Than a Strategy: Child Development and SEL

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Social, emotional, and cognitive competencies enhance the development of a level of trust necessary to foster continuous learning and achievement. This is true for teachers as well as for students. Experiencing and practicing the social-emotional skills of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.) provide a sense of predictability and increasing confidence in our willingness to explore new ideas. Over time, in the social context of schooling, it is relational trust that gives us the assurance necessary to bravely test the boundaries of our inner capacities.

Developing the tools for teaching these skills began 35 years ago and are described in detail by Ruth Charney in her book Teaching Children to Care (2002). She prepared a path for a classroom pedagogy of learning based on the integration of academic, social, and emotional learning that would come to be called The Responsive Classroom®. In the preface to the 2002 edition of Teaching Children to Care, Nel Noddings wrote:

Using Ruth Charney’s positive approach to classroom management, the whole school day will probably go better. The time spent on learning to care is not wasted; it is not time taken from academic instruction. Kids who are friendly, happy, and cooperative tackle their academic work with more confidence, and both teachers and students enjoy greater success. They are not adversaries but partners in caring and learning. (Charney, p. 2)

When teachers know their students extremely well, students can experience a sense beyond a doubt that those teachers are the ones whom they can always count on. It turns out this level of trust, sometimes called “attunement,” can actually produce mirrored-neuron responses in others that can influence the quality of both social and academic interaction in the classroom (Siegel, 2007, p. 170). A trustworthy classroom can make a significant difference in social, emotional, and academic growth.

We should remember to be mindful and attentive to learning, understanding, and respecting cultural and family values and developmental differences when considering the adoption and implementation of SEL curriculum, and as we consider any SEL standards for our students. Also, bear in mind that these standards are guidelines, not finish lines. Social and emotional learning must not become a classroom competition in the way that academics sometimes fall prey to using student grades and test results as a marker for success. Like the “yardsticks” I have offered in my child development book Yardsticks, every child is different, and as Melvin Conner is quoted in the first edition, “In order for children to be treated fairly and equally, they have to be treated differently” (Wood, 1994, Frontispiece). Furthermore, as William Crain noted, “the whole child goes to school; therefore, decisions about physical activity, food policies, and the development of social and emotional skills are as important as curriculum choices and test results” (Crain in Wood, 2007, p. x). (See also Crain, 2005, esp. pp. 374–384, for a developmental perspective on the standards movement.)

The same holds true in the adult community of schools. Where respect, competence, personal regard for others, and integrity are agreed-to values that are upheld among colleagues, staff morale and trust are strong, and so are measurable academic gains. Byrk and Schneider’s (2002) research studied twelve Chicago schools over a three-year period. Their findings showed that relational trust between educators and students and their families promoted student achievement and effective school improvement efforts.

My colleagues Pamela Seigle and Lisa Sankowski and I have spent twenty years working with teachers and principals in their adult learning communities (Seigle, Wood, & Sankowski, 2019). These efforts have engendered two approaches for reflective practice in “adult SEL” in schools that provide practices and protocols fostering relational trust and contributing to school improvement:

  • Leading Together™, a program built on the idea that the quality of adult relationships within a school community has the biggest impact on a school’s ability to improve.
  • Soul of Leadership, a personal leadership and renewal program for PreK–12 principals. (Center for Courage and Renewal, n.d.)

In a 2016 Leading Together program evaluation report from Tufts University, Nora Bond defined what she called “the essence of the work” in this adult SEL initiative as follows:

This is the essence of the work—the nearly imperceptible personal changes that inevitably shift an entire community. Choosing to wonder why a colleague is acting this way, instead of assuming, judging, and lashing out. Seeing a co-worker as a person of inherent worth and unique perspectives. This work is not necessarily calling for staffs to all become close friends; it is not trying to redefine professional behavior. It is offering a perspective that subsumes and transcends that spectrum. It is calling for people to respect each other, to see each other as unique and worthy of regard as an individual with dignity. It wants to build communities that respect the complex work educators do. (Bond, pp. 11–12)

The Soul of Leadership, a collaboration between Courage and Renewal Northeast and the Massachusetts School Administrators Association, has also been providing reflective practice for school principals since 2017 using research and pedagogy in C.A.R.E.S. skills adapted to the adult community and a growing body of relational trust research. To date, over 100 administrators have participated or are participating in these programs. This initiative is also attached to ongoing evaluation. Trustworthiness takes time to emerge over the seasons of a school year, where new communities of learning are formed and reformed each and every year. Learning to trust enhances our capacities as students and teachers to learn from each other. This is especially true of this past year, with all of its gravity, uncertainty, and anxiety, and it falls on those of us who work in schools to seek and utilize trust with each other, and to be understanding about mistakes. Which, after all, are at the heart of education.


  • Bond, N. (2016). Final report: Leading Together program evaluation. Tufts University.
  • Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Center for Courage and Renewal. (n.d.). Leading together: Strengthening relational trust in schools.
  • Charney, R. (2002). Teaching children to care: Classroom management for ethical and academic growth, K–8 (revised edition). Center for Responsive Schools.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (n.d.). History.
  • Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (4th edition). Psychology Press.
  • Elliott, S. N. (1993). Caring to learn: A report on the positive impact of a social curriculum. Northeast Foundation for Children.
  • Gresham, F. M., & Elliot, S. N. (1990). Social skills rating system. American Guidance Service.
  • Seigel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. W.W. Norton.
  • Seigle, P., Wood, C., & Sankowski, L. (2019). Turn and listen: Strengthening compassion and leadership in the adult community of schools. In P.A.
  • Jennings, A. A. DeMauro, & P. P. Mischenko (Eds.) The mindful school: Transforming school culture through mindfulness and compassion (pp. 59-77).
  • The Guilford Press.
  • Wood, C. (1994). Yardsticks: Children in the classroom ages 4-12 (1st edition). Center for Responsive Schools.
  • Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the classroom ages 4-14 (3rd edition). Center for Responsive Schools