Civic engagement is the oil that keeps the gears of democracy working. But what exactly are the behaviors of an engaged citizen?
Understanding other points of view, solving problems collaboratively, and building relationship skills may all come to mind.
For many educators, those skills will sound familiar, because they’re many of the same taught through social-emotional learning.
Not only are the skills cultivated through social-emotional learning the same behaviors that power civic engagement, but the reverse is also true: Civic engagement can be a meaningful way to teach and reinforce social and emotional skills.
That’s especially true for middle and high schoolers who are searching for their place in their communities and the world and might not otherwise connect with traditional social-emotional lessons, said Jenna Ryall, the director of Civics for All, an initiative of the New York City department of education to promote civic engagement in the city’s schools.
“[Civics] is relatable. It’s a practical application of social-emotional learning,” she said. “I think that is the best way to teach social-emotional learning—if [students] can see how it’s applied beyond the classroom walls, if they can see how it’s improving their interpersonal skills, if they can see how it’s allowing them the opportunity of using their voice, if they can see the results of co-creating the school community with the adults around them and the respect they are getting as a co-creator of those things.”
Civic engagement is much more expansive than just voting. It includes volunteering, advocacy, and really anything to do with people coming together to solve their communities’ problems, including those in school communities.
A democracy can’t function properly without the participation of its people, and school is the perfect place for students to learn these skills, dispositions, and habits, said Rebecca Winthrop, a senior fellow and the co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. In many parts of the country, schools may be the only avenue for students to develop their civic muscle.
Researchers estimate that 30 percent of urban youth and 60 percent of rural youth live in what’s been described as “civic deserts,” said Winthrop. These are communities where there are few resources or opportunities—such as youth programming, culture and arts groups, and religious congregations—for youth to be civically active.
Nationally, civic engagement has been on the decline for years.
“I am very worried about evaporating civic disposition among large swaths of the adult population and I’m worried about what effect that is having on children,” said Winthrop. “No one is modeling this to them.”
One doesn’t have to look any further than a number of recent school board meetings across the country where community members have made death threats to board members over masking policies, to see the value of well-developed social-emotional skills to civic life.
Giving students a say in how schools are run and opportunities to work together to solve problems are ways that schools can help students hone their social, emotional, and civic skills.