New SEL Curriculum Intended to Help Youth Focus Attention, Develop Compassion

Dalai Lama: Standing man in blue bows forehead to hand of man seated at table in red robe, glasses, shaved head

Tenzin Choejor/

The Dalai Lama in October at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India.

Many social and emotional learning models exist, but a new one introduced this year involved the Dalai Lama. The leader of Tibetan Buddhism was present for the kick-off of the SEE Learning (Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning) curriculum in April in New Delhi, India.

Developed at Emory University in Atlanta, SEE Learning adds compassion training to a social-emotional learning framework.

“It’s a program that sprang from the Dalai Lama’s vision,” said Lindy Settevendemie, project coordinator for SEE Learning at Emory University. “A lot of people are interested in what he has to say about educating the heart and mind.”

In little more than six months, the curriculum has been used in 25 countries.  

SEE Learning grew from the Emory-Tibet Partnership, which brought scientific study to the Tibetan tradition of cultivating mind states such as loving kindness and mindfulness.

“Our team at Emory University first started researching the science of compassion 15 years ago,” wrote Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, associate director for SEE Learning, in a blog post for UNESCO.

In addition to the basic components of SEL (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making), the curriculum introduces compassion as part of a focus on ethics. Compassion cannot be taught by injunction, according to the curriculum description. It is instead taught through students’ thinking critically about their own needs and values.

In one SEE Learning middle school activity, for example, students perform a short skit in which a basketball team captain tries hard to recruit a new player. The captain gets members of the team to be extremely nice to the new student. In a discussion following the skit, kids look at whether the team members were being kind. Are “nice” actions with other intentions really a kindness? What distinguishes real kindness?

Lessons include a reflective activity in which students consider how the subject relates to their own life.

The curriculum also cultivates the skill of attention.

In a 2014 book, Daniel Goleman, co-founder of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, wrote that training in attention is a next step for SEL because it’s a critical skill in helping children manage their inner worlds. HIs book, “The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education,” co-authored with Peter Senge, addresses what the authors believe young people need in a speeded-up. distraction-filled world of increasing interconnectedness.

In the SEE Learning program, focused attention is taught through noticing sensations, “tracking” or holding them in the mind and noticing associated feelings.

 Students are also taught about interdependence and systems thinking.

“It’s the idea of looking at the interrelatedness of all things,” Settevendemie said. “[Kids} can see where they can make positive change to a system they live in.” A system could be as simple as children sharing toys on a playground or as large as efforts to impact climate change, she said.

In a lesson, students might be asked to identify something they’ve accomplished such as learning to ride a bike. They then are asked to name everything that the accomplishment depended on (their parents, a friend, a flat surface to ride the bike on, the inventor of bicycles, etc.). 

SEE Learning is available in 12 languages and has been introduced in countries including Spain, Chile, Ukraine and Brazil.

It can be useful in after-school settings, wrote Lynn Borden in the Journal of Youth Development. She noted that an online professional development site is available for teachers and after-school staff.


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