Young People at S.E.A: Recognizing Children’s Social and Emotional Assets Through the Plight of Baby Sea Turtles

Young People at S.E.A: Recognizing Children’s Social and Emotional Assets Through the Plight of Baby Sea Turtles

Deeper insights are everywhere, you just have to open your eyes.

I had no way of knowing as I moaned about having to wait on the beach at night with irksome mosquitos, but I was at the precipice of an epiphany. My time with the birth of baby leatherback sea turtles, albeit involuntary, led me to a crucial understanding of development.

I audibly groaned as I tried to reason with the van driver for the hotel, but he wouldn’t return without the entire group. The hotel was too far away to make a special trip for one.

I was stuck.

So, I returned to the beach with the others. I had no choice but to stop complaining, although I didn’t want to wait on or see a leatherback sea turtle lay eggs.

Then, it happened.

She crawled on the sand and began to move her hind flippers back and forth, flinging sand to dig a two-foot nest to lay her eggs. Large, white, glistening eggs extruded from her body.

One. Two. Six. Twelve. The eggs kept dropping.

A female can lay up to 100 eggs in one nest.

Watching this rather large, almost eight-foot leatherback sea turtle lay eggs was magnificent. I marveled at Mother Nature’s orchestrated timing.

Orchestrated timing. It is perhaps best seen when young people’s social and emotional assets develop.

If we can survive the wait.

So often, though, adults, in an anxious and misguided sense of urgency, miss it. We skip the wait, minimizing the journey and emergence of young people’s social and emotional assets.

In the same way, I almost missed the emergence of those sea turtle embryos.

Adults often bypass opportunities to use relationship development as a nest, providing young people with a warm, supportive, incubated safe space for social and emotional assets to emerge.

The correlation between creating a S.E.A.-filled environment for learning and the sea turtle’s emergence from the nest may not be immediately obvious.

This is where my work begins.

Now that I have your attention, let’s explore this relationship.

The Importance of Creating a Positive S.E.A.-Filled Environment

First, the turtles’ coordinated climb out of the nest is critical to their survival. Persistence and collective struggle are the way out.

Yet, some do not make it. They do not survive. In total, the turtles’ nest contains as many as 109 embryos. But, as they break open their shells and attempt to emerge from the two-foot nest, only around 85% will survive. For many, the force of nature results in death.

The ones that mature to full term immediately begin preparing for the next survival test—the trek across the beach floor into the ocean.

These intelligent creatures instinctively know to move toward the ocean at night under the light of the ocean horizon. This way, they are less likely eaten alive, they avoid the stress of heat, and escape the crushing fate of beach dwellers’ feet.

Like turtles, young people respond to and mimic the behavior of others around them. According to 25 years of research at The Search Institute, young people need two types of assets to develop into successful adults. Those are external community assets and internal social and emotional assets.

The community assets are drawn from and acquired through observations of and relationships with adults in the community. Correspondingly, young people absorb the social and emotional assets of those adults with whom they interact most.

When young people observe adults who are unable to maintain their temper or composure during stressful or challenging situations, they don’t learn how to self-regulate their emotional state. When they don’t experience collaboration or collective effort, they won’t acquire the skills necessary to support others. Consequently, they aren’t fully equipped to help themselves. When they have not been supported through difficult challenges, the skills necessary to support themselves and others go underdeveloped.

Conversely, when they see adults remain poised and calm during obviously stressful situations, they, too, mimic this behavioral response, particularly when observed over extended periods of time.

In acquiring social and emotional assets, young people might express growing pains. Yet, like the baby sea turtle—upon trekking across the sandy beach and feeling the rough sensation on her tender skin—knows, when she reaches the welcoming ocean, her chances for survival have increased. She has passed the first of two survival tests and recognizes that she stands a greater chance of future success, albeit, she hasn’t yet completed the course.

Supporting Adolescents in their Climb to S.E.A.

There are 20 internal social and emotional assets students must develop for success in adulthood (Search Institute, 2018). A few of these parallel the internal assets that are observed during the turtle’s emergence, trek, and swimming frenzy. Remember, turtles are programmed to plan and prepare for emergence. They eat their shells for energy, knowing that the sustenance they need for continued survival might not come for a few days or weeks.

Young people rely on adults to help plan and prepare for the future. For as many as possible to get out of the nest, turtles help each other through a coordinated climb. They demonstrate sensitivity toward each other which can be seen as they push each other up and out of the nest.

They recognize that they have some (not all) control over things that will happen. This is observed through their ability to cross the rough terrain of the beach floor—under the cover of darkness in most cases—using the light of the ocean’s horizon and slope of the beach to know which way to go.

Turtles have a keen sense of their primary purpose—to survive. They know that after surviving at least 10 years, their life expectancy could be up to 10 times longer. Then, there are androgenic forces that will ensure their survival for as long as naturally possible, often up to 100 years.

To young people and those responsible for their development, there is an orchestrated time. But, until such time, we must survive the wait.

Through adolescence, we must plan and prepare for the future. We must:

  • Learn to help and support others so we can learn how to help and support ourselves.
  • Understand that life has a specific, time-sensitive purpose.
  • Pay attention to the guidance that positive adults offer. This is the light of our horizon.
  • Ignore negative adults and peers in our lives and recognize they may not have received the right social and emotional support to fulfill their dreams.
  • Develop sensitivity to others. This sensitivity will evoke a coordinated and collective effort to lift and climb.

Evidence on the impact of positive environments that foster healthy social and emotional development is clear. In a longitudinal analysis of 270,034 students (K-12) compared to controls, SEL(social-emotional learning) participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement (Durlack, et. al, 2011). A 2017 consensus brief from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic development shows a wide range of scientists agree: Social Emotional Learning matters, is doable, and has a lasting impact (Jones & Kahn, 2017).

Integrating Social and Emotional Learning is Crucial to the Success of STEM Education Programs

The importance of integrating social and emotional learning into STEM education programs is clear. In order to achieve success in the world, it is essential that we prioritize more than strong academic skills. We must demonstrate and provide students with strong social and emotional skills. Educational programs that help students develop these abilities are necessary for ensuring long-term success for all students, but especially for those who lack positive S.E.A models in their life.

There are many ways to achieve this. As students are immersed in STEM education programs or engage in hands-on, inquiry-based learning, it’s vital that we remember to provide guided instruction specific to social and emotional development. Don’t simply assess for cognitive development regarding science or mathematics concepts. Assess for social and emotional learning increases, too. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has created an interactive assessment toolkit to help practitioners select measures of social and emotional competence.

Social and emotional assets are critical to the work of STEM educators as we advocate for students working in teams or collaborative groups while completing project-based assignments or practicing 21st-century learning skills. Highly developed social and emotional assets allow students to understand other people’s intentions and increase their behavioral skills, such as knowing how to enter an ongoing conversation or when to allow their peers to shine.

Social-emotional learning also helps increase students’ beliefs and attitudes about themselves (self-efficacy beliefs) or in the ability of themselves in relation to others (collective efficacy).

These assets are also the primary ingredients of promoting high-quality STEM teaching and learning. Yet, they are the least discussed aspects of STEM teaching, learning, and performance.

As baby sea turtles trek across dry land to the ocean, observations show that many travel alone through the exhaustive effort of flapping their dorsal fins, one stroke at a time. The babies must do this to get to the environment in which they were created to live and thrive.

They must survive the wait.

As academic leaders, educators and parents, we, too, must survive the wait. Don’t be too hurried to write students off. Recognize that you and your words create a context in which their social and emotional assets could develop and thrive or where they could eventually dwarf and die.

Cruel words, harsh tones, low expectations, grimaced looks, and negative commentary all work to short circuit cognition. A positive S.E.A.-filled environment is where cognition thrives!


Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405–432.

Jones, S., Barnes, S., Bailey, R., & Doolittle, E. (2017). Promoting Social and Emotional Competencies in Elementary School. The Future of Children, 27(1), 49-72. Retrieved from

Jones, S & Kahn, J. (2017). The Evidence Base for How We Learn Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Aspen Institute

“Helping Young People Be and Become Their Best Selves.” Search Institute,