A Stoic Approach to SEL

Last week, I received an email advertisement for The Daily Stoic 10-Day Spring Forward Challenge. Designed by Ryan Holiday (best-selling author of several books that I highly recommend, including: Growth Hacker Marketing, The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Conspiracy), the challenge was marketed as:

“…a set of ten actionable challenges — presented at a pace of one per day — built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy. Ten challenges designed to help you bring a sense of clarity and purpose to your life.”

Holiday is a huge proponent of Stocisim, and my limited knowledge of Stoicism stems from reading his books. In summary, the philosophy was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC and was famously practiced by the likes of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. A central teaching of Stoicism is that we do not control and cannot rely on external events, but that we can control ourselves and our responses. It preaches self-awareness, humility, compassion and grit.


According to Holiday, The 10-Day Challenge was designed to help individuals simplify their lives, gain control over their schedule, face their fears, expand their point of view, abandon harmful habits, and do more with their days using clear, immediate exercises and methods that can be implemented immediately. Given that the dates of the challenge lined-up almost perfectly with my spring break, I decided to fork up the $25 and give it a try.

Three days into the challenge, I started to see many parallels between the principles of Stoicism being translated into the daily practices and many social-emotional learning competencies that are covered in both professional development for educators as well as curriculum for students. It struck me that approaching social-emotional learning through a Stoic lens could yield interesting ideas for programs and practices that schools might adopt.

After completing the challenge and reflecting on my experience, I sat down to brainstorm ways in which some of the Stoic practices can be applied in a school-setting. Here are several Stoicism-inspired methods to consider for adaptation into SEL programming.

CHALLENGE: Keep an activity log of everything you do today. There is a shocking amount of unintentionality that goes into much of what we do. When we examine our actions, we can see that there is oftentimes very little awareness of what we are actually doing and (more importantly) why we are doing them. These sorts of unthinking activities are, as Seneca put it, a form of “busy idleness” that serves little purpose.

This specific challenge required participants to journal all of their actions, note their emotional state or feelings during each activity, and review their entire log at the end of the day.

For students, becoming self-aware of how much time is spent on various activities throughout the average day can be a revealing exercise on several levels. Helping students to become self-aware in terms of how much time they spend on social media, how much time they spend playing video games, or even how much time they dedicate to homework each evening may be very illuminating and help lead to changes in behavior. Furthermore, this type of project is perfect for middle-school and high-school aged students who could most benefit from exploring how various activities (e.g., browsing their Instagram feed, hanging out with friends, doing homework, etc.) makes them feel. If a student can see that spending time on social media actually makes them feel more isolated and alone, taking a break from their favorite platforms could improve their overall mental wellbeing.

For educators, this is all about controlling their schedule. Teachers are always short on time and struggle to find openings in their schedule to add new programming or incorporate social-emotional learning activities. This journaling exercise may uncover patterns of unnecessary meetings or habits and, conversely, lead to potential time-saving opportunities that open up their ability to add in new modules to their daily lesson plan.

The act of journaling has been shown to be incredibly effective in the world of nutrition. Several studies have confirmed that keeping a food journal over the course of several weeks is one of the best ways to lose weight. The accountability that comes from writing down everything you eat produces an optimal amount of guilt to force you to think harder about what you put into your body. As Holiday puts it, “the power of logging your behavior is to see all of it so your mind can’t compartmentalize or rationalize its unconscious choices–whether that’s midnight snacking or frittering away money or… how we spend our time.”

CHALLENGE: Get one important area of your life in order. In Stoicism, the word ataraxia — popularized by Epictetus — is used to refer to a state characterized by freedom from clutter and chaos.

Understanding the power of minimalism and exercising control over your physical environment are two invaluable skills for students to learn. An activity in which students are divided into teams and assigned different areas of responsibility to clean or organize in the classroom gives educators a way to build classroom culture and empower students to collaborate, work in teams, and take ownership over their physical spaces. It might also inspire students to extend the act of de-cluttering to other areas of their life.

CHALLENGE: Do something you’re afraid of. “Do one thing every day that scares you” is one of the most overused pieces of self-help wisdom known to man. But, in reality, very few of us really do push outside of our comfort zones on a regular basis. Educators and schools are uniquely positioned to help students explore failure in a psychologically-safe environment and learn the power of getting comfortable with it.

In his book Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection, author Jia Jiang documents a series of deliberate failures that he intentionally planned, carried out, logged and reflecting on. What did he find? First, each failure made the next failure much easier to stomach. He became numb to the fear of failure and could take bigger risks. Second, he naturally developed a growth mindset and began to see failures as a tool for learning and self-improvement. And third, he came to see that many of the assumptions that were subconsciously holding him back from taking risks (e.g., if I ask this person for something outlandish, they will think I’m stupid and reject me) were false and ill-conceived.

Teachers have the power to show their students that getting straight A’s in life is not necessarily feasible or even advisable. Academic and professional careers (not to mention social and romantic pursuits) are susceptible to ups and downs. While we cannot foresee, control, or prevent the obstacles that will inevitably get in our way, we can control our response to them.

CHALLENGE: Reply “no” to 3 pending things. This practice is especially applicable for educators. Similar to the activity log exercise, practicing the power of saying “no” can reinforce the need for teachers to value their time. All professionals are guilty of overcommitting and manufacturing business. But saying “no” can open up time on one’s schedule to devote to deep thinking, catch up on work, and get ahead. Imagine how much time we could free up if we said “no” to one meeting each week. How much more could you get done? How much more time could you devote to being with loved ones? How many new programs and activities could you brainstorm and develop to use with students?

Deciding what you are deliberately not going to do is just as, if not more, important than deciding what to do. Steve Jobs subscribed to this philosophy whole-heartedly:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

CHALLENGE: Have an open-minded conversation with someone you disagree with. This piece on Medium that Holiday recently published does a brilliant job of explaining why civility, empathy, and listening are so important in today’s political climate. In schools, it is particularly important for educators to model respect and kindness while teaching students about perspective taking and active listening. Children are growing up in an era in which Twitter beefs are celebrated and, unfortunately, showing them how to debate or argue with others. Restructuring the traditional class debate and transforming it into more of a dialogue, where students are able to see that disagreements are OK (and that the goal should not necessarily be to convince someone of your point-of-view) could be combined with a lesson in civic engagement.

CHALLENGE: Sit on a porch for one hour. Do nothing but think. The benefits of mindfulness are well documented, and many classrooms are beginning to carve out time for students to practice meditation and mindful moments. But how often are students (or teachers) allotted time that is completely free for them to think. Not draw. Not read. Not listen to podcasts or music. Not meditate. Just think. How often are you ever really alone, just with you and your thoughts?

Carving out time for thinking is one of the most difficult tasks for anyone to do. But countless evidence shows that it is a vitally important ritual to build into your week. Science proves that you are improving yourself and your health when you sit, do nothing, and think. It increases creativity, enhances the ability to solve problems and make decisions, and causes the brain to produce new cells.

Author Cal Newport popularized the concept of “Deep Work”: the rare ability to concentrate without distraction on a demanding task. This is a skill that is essential for anyone who hopes to accomplish meaningful work in today’s world, and it is a skill that can be developed.

Educators need to invest in “deep work” themselves, and they also have the power to create opportunities for their students to do the same.

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