There is a great deal of emphasis placed on comparison and measuring up during the adolescent years, and if students are not coming from similar backgrounds with the same level of support, it can be hard to feel confident in your ability to add value. When we talk about diversity and equity in schools, we are often looking at the resources students and their families have in terms of economic wealth – is there enough food at home, enough money to afford extras like tutors and testing and uniforms and sporting activities, flexibility with regard to parents and caregivers to support students where and how they need it. These are vital questions, and if you’re a student who doesn’t have a great deal of financial security, it can feel as though you don’t have the same kinds of opportunities as other students who do.
Dr. Tara Yosso developed something she calls the Cultural Wealth Model as she thought about helping students who historically don’t have access to post-secondary education. It is a way for students to re-frame their thoughts about the strengths they can draw on as they apply for jobs or college and it’s a powerful acknowledgment that there are many skills and abilities that have nothing to do with money that are incredibly valuable nonetheless.
I first learned about this model last weekend when I attended a conference on social-emotional learning and equity and I believe that this has the potential to impact all students and encourage them to think about the things they may take for granted that they can instead use as assets. I’m currently designing a lesson wherein students can make their own “alternative wealth maps,” even adding other categories beyond the ones Dr. Yosso talks about. I practiced by making my own and I’ve included it below as an example. The double arrows indicate the areas that work together to amplify wealth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this model and how you might apply it to remind adolescents that they have a lot to offer to their communities.
Adolescence is a unique time in human development, not only physically but mentally. The adolescent brain is growing and changing rapidly, both “pruning” old connections and pathways to make things more efficient, and building new neural “superhighways” that will become used almost exclusively for the rest of an individual’s life. Many of us form thinking patterns and habits in our adolescent years that will either serve us well or prove hard to break as we get older. Because of this, it is very important to make sure that the way we see the world and interact with it during adolescence takes advantage of this growth and development.
Using social-emotional education techniques that encourage broad connections and integration of information can help students during adolescence. Think about the most important moments in your middle or high school education. They weren’t likely related to a particular set of data you memorized for a test (in fact, most of that information is long gone, having only been stored in your short-term memory until the quiz or test was over). The things we recall the most, that had the most impact on us, were the “a-ha” moments. They represent the times we truly understood why something worked, when we were able to make connections between two or more ideas or facts and see the patterns. Understanding patterns and formulas is not only academically rewarding because it allows us to extrapolate further and predict things, but it actually causes a release of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical), which further imprints that concept in our minds.
Adolescence is a time of neural integration, a time when we are driven to seek connections like that and begin to have a deeper and wider knowledge of the world around us. When we can draw parallels between different subjects and use our own creative thought processes to imagine still more connections, we are rewarded by feeling good. It is this phenomenon that spurs still more independent learning and creates a passion for understanding in the adolescent student.
Adolescents are also particularly socially driven – preferring to spend time with peers more than anyone else. They seek connection almost constantly and work to identify groups of individuals with whom they feel they can “belong.” These people become the single most influential force in most teens’ lives.
A good adolescent SEL program takes advantage of both the brain development and the social drive of teens through student-led exploration of diverse ideas within a community of their peers in order to reinforce the building of neural superhighways that will make rapid integration of new material and creative problem-solving easier as they reach adulthood.