I’m a morning person. I befuddle my friends with the fact that I usually wake up before 7:00am, with or without an alarm clock. That said, 5:00am is early for anyone.
That’s when my alarm rocked me out of sleep on Thursday, 2/12, so that I could drive to Olympia to testify before the House Education Committee on a bill I am passionate about. House Bill (HB) 1760–formally titled “Providing students with skills that promote mental health and well-being and increase academic performance.”
In a nutshell, this bill would have the State’s education department (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, a.k.a. OSPI) convene a task force to determine social and emotional “benchmarks” for Washington’s children and how to incorporate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) into public school curricula. The research is clear that higher levels of Emotional Intelligence, the ability to recognize, regulate, and manage one’s feelings, is highly correlated with positive indicators of health, well-being, and productivity. Having worked in youth mental health services for several years, I can say that my experience agrees wholeheartedly with the research.
I arrived in Olympia at 7:30am and wrote my name on the testimony sign-in sheet. Even with 30 minutes to go, I was #9 in line to testify in favor. Typically, about 6 people are able to testify for each side (pro and con) due to time constraints. However, with no opposition testimony scheduled, my odds of getting to speak before the 20-legislator committee were decent.
Then I saw them. Three middle-school aged students in matching sweatshirts that said “We’ve Got Your Back” on them. When the bill was called, they were brought up to testify on the first 3-person panel. Normally, each person is given 2 minutes to testify. These young people, students from Pacific Middle School, came prepared and well-coached. They were each offered 5 minutes to speak.
I could have raised an objection and insisted that I be allowed to testify, and that their time be more strictly regulated. Two reasons not to: A) I’ve found it’s best to avoid arguing with children, B) I had a feeling they would be more effective in their testimony than I ever could have been.
I was right.
They began telling stories of classmates who had been through tough times. Some had been bullied. Others lost family members or had parents going through divorce. Some had hurt other people. Some had hurt themselves or attempted suicide. They talked about how they formed the “Youth Ambassadors” group to teach empathy and create a more emotionally healthy school environment. They wanted the state to help kids at all the other schools have support and resources like this. They kindly asked the legislators to support the bill and help Washington’s children. Every heart in the room melted. They finished to applause (rare in committee hearings) and then filed out of the room with multiple legislators in tow, all wanting a photo with these kids to post on their legislative profile pages.
I was able to speak to a couple of legislators after the meeting and to meet with a couple of legislative assistants to nudge them toward making sure the bill gets strong support when it’s brought to the floor. However, the real lessons learned in this experience for me came from being upstaged by three 7th graders:
1) We need to get more young people engaged in the policy process. While they can’t vote, their voice carries a certain power and grabs attention in a way adult voices cannot. They are going to have to live in the future that we are currently shaping. Helping them identify, learn about, and advocate for issues that will affect them can be an empowering and educational experience.
2) The best advocates are living the issue. I came to testify because I used to work with children in mental health treatment centers. I believe SEL in our schools might help prevent mental health crisis for other children. However, this pales in comparison to the power of hearing from young people whose are living every day with the emotional labyrinth that is middle school; who can tell the stories of friends who have contemplated suicide; who, in the absence of supportive services in their school, have stepped up to do what the State has failed to do. A sustainable and productive legislative system is one where those affected by an issue or problem. Authenticity is key to persuasion in our policy process.
3) For all it’s faults, our government is remarkably accessible. It’s also getting more accessible with time. As I wrote this, an article popped up describing a bill that just passed the Senate to allow video testimony to be submitted for review in hearings. For constituents unable or unwilling to drive to Olympia to advocate for their issues, they now need only a library card and a Skype account to speak directly to legislators. I was able to drive down, and as a result was (almost) able to testify at a hearing, and (actually) able to speak to 5 legislators and 4 legislative assistants over the course of 2 hours without an appointment.
A final concluding thought: I wish to return to the environmental side of the issue and carbon efficiency. I believe that even an education-focused concept such as SEL resources in schools is vital as we attempt to address global warming. Climate change communication is often emotionally charged–advocates of green legislation use frightening descriptions of sea-level rise to persuade audiences of the urgency of their cause. Opponents allude to conspiracies and tell listeners not to be “tricked by phony Hollywood science”, hardening emotional resistance for fear of being gullible or dumb. Emotional Intelligence isn’t just about coping skills to help kids get through embarrassing moments at school–it’s about creating a public able less susceptible to all forms of emotional manipulation; able to think critically and make informed decisions based on evidence rather than on fear, anger, or feelings of suspicion.
I feel passionate about HB1760 and helping our students develop emotionally because of the young people I worked with. However, I believe that we need it because our world needs thoughtful, grounded citizens to help us make better choices as a society.