The 5 Competencies of SEL with Norman Rockwell

6 Min Read  •  Social/Emotional Learning

Who was Rockwell? No, really, who was he? Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was an American artist who is notable for painting American culture and small-town Americana during the first half of the 20th century. He is probably most well-known for his work on images for The Saturday Evening Post. I’d venture to guess that most of the readers of this publication would know this much.

Of importance to this article is that Rockwell was much more than that. Rockwell’s narrative style is enjoyable and easily digested, but there is a stark lack of diversity in his early body of work. He began to work more in social realism later in his career with works ranging from The Four Freedoms to Murder in Mississippi

Whether Rockwell was under pressure to paint certain groups of people by his superiors at The Saturday Evening Post, unsure of himself as an artist with the power to effect change, or just took some time growing into his social activism, it feels safe to note that “instead of reducing Rockwell to just one period of his career, it would be more accurate to view Rockwell as a symbol of 20th century American racial progress.”

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Rockwell and SEL

Rockwell’s depictions of the human experience speak boldly to our social and emotional learning needs. As (CASEL) notes, there are five competencies for social-emotional learning. 

I have summarized the SEL competencies below and paired it with a Rockwell work. I offer a description of why this work pairs well with the competency and listed discussion questions appropriate to the piece that addresses the artistic content. The artistic content of each is used in this manner to address each SEL competency.

SEL Competency #1: Self-awareness

This is about knowing your strengths and weaknesses as an individual. Having an appropriate sense of confidence as well as a growth mindset are key. This SEL competency addresses the importance of optimism.

Pairing: Self-Portrait

Why This Works: This is a portrait that depicts Rockwell’s concept of self. He is painting this self-portrait not as he actually looks when he views himself in the mirror, but as how he sees himself. Note the tiny portraits that are hanging around his canvas. These are self-portraits of accomplished artists throughout history. 

Questions to Ask: What about this work depicts reality? What about this work depicts hope? What strengths is Rockwell highlighting? Is he highlighting any weaknesses or limitations? Does Rockwell seem to be concerned about his weaknesses or limitations? How is he overcoming those in this image? How is Rockwell’s growth mindset depicted here? Is optimism evident? How so? 

SEL Competency #2: Self-management

This is about managing stress in a manner that is effective and unharmful to self. Stress can be managed effectively through impulse control and motivation to set and achieve goals. 

Pairing: Young Lawyer

Why This Works: This work depicts a younger gentleman studying. He is surrounded by images of one of history’s most notable lawyers and statesmen. Notably, this particular lawyer is Abraham Lincoln who is credited with helping to create radical change in American society. The implication is that he is studying to be a lawyer and is inspired by Abraham Lincoln to do so.

Questions to Ask: How does this work indicate the young man has set a goal? What makes us think he is likely to achieve that goal? What might be his motivation? Has he set reasonable goals? How is he managing stress? Are there any elements to the work that suggest impulse control? What can we learn from this work? How can we apply this to our own lives? 

SEL Competency #3: Social awareness

This is about understanding the perspectives of others, especially those of diverse backgrounds and cultures. Empathy is key here.

Pairing: The Problem We All Live With 

Why This Works: This painting depicts Ruby Bridges on her way to her first day of school in New Orleans during the time of federally-forced integration in Louisiana in 1960. The subject matter of this work pushes us to understand the perspective of not only a child attending a new school but that of a person of color during integration. Many of those understandings can be applied to social issues we face today. 

Questions to Ask: How does Ruby feel in this moment? How do her parents feel? What about the others – how might other children of color feel after they learn about what Ruby did? How is Ruby’s background different from mine? How is her culture different from mine? Who else do I know with a different background or culture than mine? Am I aware of any situations they may have experienced that would lead them to feel similar emotions? What would I have done to support and help Ruby? What can I do now to help and support the people in my life who have different backgrounds and cultures than me? How does this work relate to today’s social issues? 

SEL Competency #4: Relationship skills

Effective communication involves intention as well as cooperation. It is important to resist inappropriate or negative social pressures. Additionally, negotiating conflict without doing harm and seeking/offering help is important. 

Pairing: Oh Yeah

Why This Works: This work depicts a group of kids arguing over a sport outcome. We can assume that the members all have a shared goal or want the same outcome, but they are differing in opinions on how to achieve it. We know they are having a disagreement because of their body language and facial expressions.

Questions to Ask: What do you think they are talking about? What makes you say that? Are they on the same team or competing with each other? What do the body language/facial expressions of each person convey? How might they have gotten to this point? Have you ever experienced something like this? What can be done to resolve this? What will happen if this behavior continues?

SEL Competency #5: Responsible decision-making

This is about making constructive choices. Both personal behavior and social interactions matter. Ethical standards, safety, and social norms are key. 

Pairing: The Gossips

Why This Works: This work depicts how a rumor can spread quickly and to a lot more people than intended. It conveys how both personal behavior (the one who started it) and social interactions (how one tells another…and on and on and on) impact ourselves and others. 

Questions to Ask: Do you think the first person to tell the gossip knows it spread as far as it did? How would they react if they knew? Would they do something differently next time if they knew? What are the long-term impacts this might have on the individuals pictured? What about the people they are talking about? Have you experienced this? What impact did it have?

There’s definitely some overlap with these works and the competencies. Plus, there are other Rockwell works that could be used as well. I anticipate some units being developed around this topic. Going forward, though, how might we extend this learning beyond just the initial questioning and discussions? What other works of art could we connect here? Can you think of any writing opportunities that can stem from this? What art-making opportunities would be appropriate? I’d love to hear your ideas!