My “Why”: SEL Before there was “SEL” by Adrien Palmer

Hey, I’m Adrien Palmer, half of Narwhals & Waterfalls. I currently live in Dallas with my wife Lizbet and my dog, Tyler. I do all kinds of things, odd jobs here and there, but my main work is writing music and writing copy for a local creative agency.

After being forced to take a summer job at McDonalds when I was 18, I was determined to do anything but that the next summer. I ended up working at a summer camp in Gaston, a small town 20 minutes outside of where I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina.  As a senior counselor, I was in charge of a 10-child cabin for 22.5 hours a day, 5 days a week. I learned a lot during that summer, and the three following summers. But what stuck with me in a very profound way was watching one of our girl senior counselors work with her cabin.

She started every week by doing a bunch of icebreakers and trust building exercises. Nothing too new there, though very creative. But next, she would ask them what rules they thought everyone should follow. I remember laughing in disbelief. How could a group of 10 5-year-olds possibly be trusted to not only create the rules but follow them?

I was wrong.

She still had behavior issues, but because she took the time to get to know them, and gave them ownership of the rules, even when they broke them, they still wanted to follow them. I watched kids seek her out to confess when they messed up and ask her to forgive them. Somehow in a few short days, she had become both the person they sought comfort from and the person who they didn’t want to let down. It was beautiful.

Giving her campers the tools and space to manage themselves developed a sense of pride in them. They took responsibility gladly for daily chores and activities, even stepping outside of what was expected. One summer, her cabin (on their own) decided to so something special for their counselor, came up with an idea, then approached me secretly to ask for both permission and help.

I didn’t have the term Social Emotional Learning in my tool belt yet, but I knew what she was doing was important. She went on to be an elementary school teacher, and I carry the example she set into every classroom I enter. For a few years, I had a job where I worked at multiple schools and went from classroom to classroom. I worked with teachers who, unfortunately,  thought like I used to. And in other classrooms, I sat in sheer awe as 20 3-years-olds sat in silent meditation for three minutes.

It reminded me so much of my friend from camp, who knew it would be a struggle, but struggled to bring out the best in her campers, not just control the worst.

That’s my “why” when it comes to SEL. Because there is so much potential, so much wonder to be enjoyed if we not only leave room to be surprised, but continue to believe in and cultivate the best in our students even when it’s difficult to see.

Adrien’s Quick SEL Tip:

It always starts with loving and caring for ourselves as teachers.

1) Create a Yoga Practice

Starting a morning routine that includes yoga has been one of the most important things I’ve ever done. It helped me in the classroom because I was more aware of where and how I was carrying stress in my body, which made me less likely to pass on that tension.

One of my favorite resources is Yoga with Adriene.

2) I’m Always Me

As I was writing this, I was thinking about the boxes that we get put in by others and put ourselves in. When we say things like “I could never…” why not? “Me” isn’t a set of things I’ve already done, but an ever expanding collection of emotions and experiences. I never lose myself. I’m ALWAYS me!!

We’ve put together an entire curriculum around this song with worksheets and more on our Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

As always, we would love to connect through Facebook, Instagram, E-mail, or our SEL Community Chat Facebook group.

Creative Songs for Creative Kids,


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