Self-awareness is one of the two foundational domains of all SEL skills. Without the ability to recognize and understand your own thoughts and feelings and desires for expression, and without the ability to recognize and understand how thoughts and feelings and behaviors are being presented to others, it is very challenging to understand and/or utilize all other aspects of SEL. All other domain areas of SEL require self-awareness skills. We often equate self-awareness to the fundamentals for a sport of art or academic content area. Recognizing and understanding cognition, physiology, the desire for expression and the actual expression are the fundamentals of competence in SEL, and like sports and arts and academics, it is always helpful to revisit the fundamentals, particularly as student skill develops, after all Lebron didn't shoot one free-throw 15 years ago and call it good.
If you move through the domains in the order they are arranged on this site you will see a pattern of skills; first the self than the social; Self-awareness followed by social awareness; self-management followed by social management; self-efficacy followed by social engagement. The design is intentional first we learn, practice, apply, assess with and for the self, then we learn, practice, apply, assess with and for others. The reason for this order is that if we do not have awareness of our individual feelings, thoughts, and desire for expression, we may be "off" when we work to interact with or provide for others. Moving back-and-forth between the self and the social also supports equitable learning opportunities with both individualistic and collectivist cultures. (You can jump over to the Culture Matters page here for to read more about collectivist and individualistic approaches and why equitable experiences with both are significant for gaining SEL competence.)
There are many ways to build self-awareness skills. Mindfulness practice is a self-awareness, "checking-in" can build self-awareness skills, reflecting can build self-awareness. To help our students develop self-awareness we have designed four questions for students and staff to ask.
What am I thinking?
What am I thinking? – This question helps us recognize and understand our cognitive process. All mindfulness practice or mediation practice works to build strength in recognize our thoughts. Things like, "Am I thinking (dwelling, ruminating, perseverating) on a past event or memory (pleasant or unpleasant) or am I focused on a potential/hopeful/dreadful possible future?" Also, what are the feelings I am associating with my thoughts? Do my feelings give me thoughts? Do my thoughts give me feelings? Both? Do I see a pattern between a recurring thought and a recurring feeling?
What am I feeling in my body?
What am I feeling in my body? – This question helps us recognize and understand what is going on physiologically by focusing attention on the mind/body connection. Some common places to start focusing on are shoulders (tense or relaxed) jaw (clinched or loose) hands (fists or open) forehead (crinkled or flat) low-back (tight or flexible) hamstrings (tight or flexible) and always breathe into the stomach (the second brain) to see what’s going on there. Sometimes the body awareness is stronger than the cognitive awareness so don't overlook the significance of what the body is feeling and communicating.
What do I want to express to others and what am I expressing to others?
What do I want to express to others? - This questions allows us to recognize our desires for expression. Do you want to express joy by hugging, do you want to express anger by hitting? Many people judge themselves harshly or even disown desires for expression that may not fit into their ideas of themselves or their ideas of being a "good person". Try to not! Work to approach yourself with as little judgement as possible about how you want to express yourself. It is okay and natural and healthy to "want" to express yourself in many, many ways that may not be socially or even personally acceptable. Don't add to a big feeling by condemning or shaming a desire. Allow your judgement about the thought to be the filter you use when choosing an expression. So if you are noticing a "less than pro-social" desire, don't do it. Which leads us to the second part of this question.
What am I expressing? This focuses attention on what others see and hear. We cannot control how other people perceive us but we can work to put out our best intentions of how we hope to be received. Think about our body language. This could start with, “what can people see on my face right now?” (scowl, frown, smile, eye roll, avoiding/seeking eye contact, soft eyes or hard stares, mean mugging, apathy, distance, distracted/present) and check-in with the body language also (slouching, leaning back, leaning in, tension, relaxed, proximity toward others – too close, pulling away). It is okay to ask others if you are unsure. "Do I sound tense or calm?", "Do I look bored?" are kind ways to inquire.
*NOTE *Kids, particularly those working with trauma, are typically adept at reading body language and tone in adults. If you are unsure about what you may be projecting to others it’s always okay to ask, “How does my tone sound to you? Or What does my body look like right now?” These can support self-awareness for the person asking and the person being asked. Asking those around you for feedback models checking in and it encourages connectivity by including the recipient of the body language and tonal communication by asking their perception. This also supports deepening awareness around non-verbal communication.