In his early 40s, Mark Collin abandoned a successful career building houses in order to resume the study of psychology, which had fascinated him as a young man.

After training to become a therapist, he took a position as a counselor in a rural, impoverished school district in Northern California. Having been away from the classroom for decades, he was shocked and dismayed to see that many children lacked basic social and emotional skills, and that agitation and ache often stood in the way of learning. It was no fault of the hardworking teachers, he realized, but rather a shortcoming of the educational system as a whole.

Jump ahead 23 years. The educational program that Collin developed in collaboration with those young students, called TOOLBOX, has been adopted by more than 180 schools and currently serves over 75,000 children and families, nationally and worldwide. Borrowing from Collin’s background as a carpenter, it employs the metaphor of “inner tools”—for example, the Breathing Tool, the Taking Time Tool, and the Garbage Can Tool. Each tool, according to Collin, offers children a means of tapping into their inherent capacities and natural strengths.

I met Collin at his home in Sonoma County on a sunny spring morning to discuss his work and the broader social and emotional learning movement of which it is a part. Before we sat down to talk in his quiet, book-lined study, he showed me a letter of support for TOOLBOX written by the Dalai Lama. Scanning it quickly, I noticed the phrases “fuller, more rounded education,” “heart as well as the head,” and “happier and more peaceful era.” Collin smiled, tucked the letter into a binder for safekeeping, and the conversation began.

Mark Collin SEL
Mark Collin

What is social and emotional learning?
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a worldwide movement that addresses what many people are calling “the missing piece” in education. It’s long been taken for granted that school is about developing the intellect, but now people are realizing there’s this huge emotional and social reality that exists at all times under the surface of our daily affairs. We’re not automatons. Our feelings interact with our thoughts and our behavior, in turn influencing our ability to learn. How are or aren’t emotions integrated into life? How do they influence social dynamics? And what does all of this have to do with raising and educating children? The field of SEL is interested in those kinds of questions.

Do your students practice specific SEL skills?
Absolutely. SEL breaks down into five areas. The first is self-awareness, or self-knowledge—learning to reflect on what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, what you value, and becoming more aware of the stories that are shaping your experience. The second is self-management, which refers to regulating your thoughts, emotions, and behavior in complex interpersonal and intrapersonal situations. The third is social awareness, usually understood as empathy. The fourth is relationship skills, as seen in the ability to form healthy friendships, resolve conflicts, and work in groups. Last, there’s responsible, ethical decision making.

A skill that everyone can benefit from practicing, from cradle to grave, is pausing and taking a moment before acting. This may not sound like an impressive skill when compared to something as notoriously cerebral as calculus, but just watch yourself through the course of a day—in traffic or in conversation with a family member or coworker. I’m talking about the ability to head off at the pass a quick emotional response, the ability to question the complexity of what’s going on both inside and out, and then make a positive decision.

We want kids to be proactive, not reactive, and SEL provides kids the means of getting in touch with their agency, authority, and authorship. What’s going on inside? What am I feeling? What do I need? Asking and answering these questions is a skill. First you becoming aware of the self, then you work outward from there to consider others.

Can you illustrate SEL in action with an anecdote from your work?
I started out as a guidance counselor in a kindergarten classroom where the students had a lot of trouble calming down and focusing. You need to be able to focus in order to learn, so one day I sat down on the carpet with the kids and showed them how to take a deep, conscious breath. By simply teaching them how to breathe, they found a new way to inhabit themselves and the communal space. And on top of that, they really liked it. It became clear to me that 5-year-olds had this capacity—and not just a capacity, but what seemed like a longing, a need, a desire—to regulate themselves by breathing. Then the teacher started breathing with the students. Just like that, right before our eyes, the nature of the class changed.

I can picture a rambunctious kid, taking a breath, calming down.
And not just one kid, but many kids together, consciously breathing as a group, all sharing the same experience. They felt the change in their bodies, somatically, but also in the room, which got a lot calmer and clearer.

What was the classroom like prior to teaching the kids to breathe?
It was chaotic with lots of disruptive behavior—kids flopping around in chairs and squirming under desks, sometimes fighting with one another, sometimes having meltdowns and crying. Things would escalate fast, with one kid’s energy transferring to the next, and soon there was no way to reign it all in, no way to hold their attention and center their minds. We say emotions are an open-loop system, which means your mood isn’t just internally regulated. Our connections with other people also determine our moods, for both better and worse.

There was a lot of anxiety in the room, too. Each student was at a different level in terms of his or her ability to sit in a chair, listen, and participate. Who knows what happened on the bus an hour ago? Who knows what happened at home that morning? Some kids hadn’t eaten a real breakfast. Some had probably been awake most of the night. There was this jaggedness to the scene—some kids prepared to learn, others reeling. The breathing tool smoothed things out.

How is the SEL movement meshing with mainstream education in America today?
Right now, at a national level, SEL programs are considered “nice to have,” not “must have.” Things are changing quite rapidly, though. In some states it’s mandatory that schools incorporate SEL, even if only for a few minutes of the day. It’s becoming part of what we consider a complete education.

On the whole, we’re seeing a huge demand, and that’s because the difficulties children face are widespread. People are using the word “epidemic” with regard to bullying, eating disorders, drug abuse, violence, cliques, isolation, suicide. Not only is academic performance impacted, but entire lives are impacted, and those lives impact other lives. Researchers talk of downstream and upstream costs. How much money gets spent on jails, rehabilitation programs, and the like? If we invest in individuals when they are young and give them the tools they need, society will benefit down the line. The SEL concept is simple and sane.

Look at what happened when 20 children were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. Around tragedies like that people begin to ask how we’re going to deal with all of this darkness. In SEL circles we use the phrase “whole child.” Not only do kids need to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, they also need to learn how to find their voice, communicate their emotions, work together in groups, resolve conflicts, and strengthen social bonds. The suffering felt by kids, families, and communities is waking people up. It’s grim, but that’s driving the movement.

Can you describe the dominant pedagogy that SEL is up against?
Children need to participate in their learning, as opposed to just eat something the teacher feeds them. We’re all familiar with the regurgitation model, where the teacher lectures, you take notes, and then you spit the content back up in a test, paper, or presentation. There’s a real challenge to that pedagogy these days, and SEL flows right into that challenge by encouraging children to have agency and be responsible for their own education.

Internal locus of control versus external locus of control—that’s another angle on this question. The teacher is the authority, standing up front, commanding the class, acting as the enforcer. From the children’s perspective, that’s an external locus of control. Rules come from the outside, not the inside, and as such they weaken the real responsibility, which is to oneself. With rules, we are policed rather than self-managed.

I’ve heard of strength-based and deficit-based educational models.
Yes, when a kid does something “bad,” we separate the disruptive behavior from the larger picture. He’s an angry boy. He’s pathological. You threw a chair across the room? Go to the principal’s office immediately! The deficit-based system focuses on what’s “broken.” It’s punitive. And it drives the from-schools-to-prisons idea. The boy is deemed “bad,” which sets him on a trajectory toward jail, drug addiction, depression, and so on. Once bad, always bad.

But the boy’s not really “bad,” is he? Of course not. This is a matter of focus and emphasis—through what lens do we want to see this child? Kids have the seeds of self-reflection and self-mastery within them, and the strength-based system turns our attention to these untapped resources.

A part of every child is unbroken, regardless of life circumstances. The TOOLBOX Project can help children access this unbroken part. Rather than a kid who needs to be “fixed,” here’s a kid who needs to be supported. Many educators talk about how the deficit-based system is unsustainable because it deals only at the surface level, while the strength-based system, because it’s internally driven, makes for true growth and transformation.

What is resiliency?
In Buddhist philosophy the first noble truth is that life is suffering. We can probably all agree that there’s a certain degree of suffering, difficulty, whatever word you want to use, in being alive on this planet. The ability to bounce back from difficulty and be made stronger in the process—that would be my definition of resiliency.

Actually, it appears that we’re biologically programmed to bounce back. There’s evidence coming in from various cultures across the globe that children born into high-risk conditions, such as war zones, can grow up to lead successful lives. In the face of massive stress and hardship, kids can still develop into healthy, happy adults. Resiliency theory identifies three factors that need to be present in an environment for this to happen: caring relationships, high expectation messages (such as “I believe in you”), and opportunities to participate and contribute in a meaningful way. Even in what we’d usually consider a hopeless situation, those three factors can tap into a person’s innate resiliency.

I’ve heard you speak of “traumatized communities.” What do you mean?
At a school we’re working in, the principal got a call in the middle of the day, informing her that somebody with an AK-47 was on the roof of a nearby building. Immediately, the entire school went into lockdown. Most people probably associate lockdown with maximum-security prisons. The walls around this particular school are 14 feet tall, topped with barbed wire.  

Some people were shot and killed across the street from the school the night before, and the kids were holding that information, even as the school went into lockdown. Shootings are a part of their culture. They all likely know somebody who has been shot.

In any given classroom, half the students’ parents are in jail, or on probation, or out of work. Drug addiction is heavy. Care is minimal. Racism, violence, poverty, pollution—there are a number of elements that build towards trauma. You could say it’s a question of oxygen. Are these kids getting enough air to breath? Children are like canaries in the coal mine, but in this case the coal mine is the city and country and society they call home. When it gets bad, the kids are the first to drop. 

You’re thinking of a specific school?
Yes, that’s a particular school in the San Francisco Bay Area, but this is happening all over—in Boston, in Montreal, everywhere. And even outside of what I’m calling “traumatized communities” we’re seeing all kinds of issues. In high-end private schools in communities characterized by wealth and privilege, there remains an insidious lack of basic social and emotional skills. Self-injury and bullying and the like occur across the geographic and socio-economic spectrums.

I wonder about connections between various scales of trauma—a kid, a family, a community, a nation, the natural world.
I see all the pieces as interconnected, whether it’s ecological degradation, the discrepancy between rich and poor, or a school shooting in a particular cafeteria in a particular town. I can’t prove it, but I see these connections when I look out at the world.

If you’re able to have an internal locus of control, where you find a quiet place regardless of your circumstances, where you become the calm center surrounded by violence and pain, can that spread out and impact the wider world? Is that a way to deal with these issues of poverty and bigotry and institutional greed and environmental abuse? The influence works its way down, from the large scale to the small scale, but it also can work its way back up, starting with the individual. Once you have that sense of what cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien would call “being at home,” you’ll never be homeless again—you can always go inside and work with what you find. By no means are you now immune to the pressures around you, but you’re not totally at their mercy either, and maybe once you’re no longer at their mercy, they weaken.

Let me bring it back to the story about the school that went into lockdown. It was lunchtime, so the first grade class was outside in the courtyard, huddled beneath a bench, waiting, wondering if shots were going to be fired. A child—not the teacher—suggested that as a group they take some intentional, deep breaths and go to their quiet, safe, inner place. After this incident, I heard from the principal. In her opinion, it was a less damaging experience for these students because they had these tools. They could support themselves and one another in that moment. They could even support their teacher, in a sense, because she didn’t have to be the only guardian of their well-being.

Does SEL find its way back to parents and the broader community?
Yes, the kids bring it home. Hey mom, your volcano is about to blow. Why not use your Breathing Tool? Here, let me show you how to do it. The kids teach their parents or caregivers. Why? Because they have taken that breath and it felt good. Think of any child excited by a new interest or skill. It could be a trick on the bicycle, or it could be a stress-management tool. Both create a positive feeling, and that positivity wants to be expressed.

Angeles Arrien, whom you mentioned, has said that your work translates the great wisdom traditions into a secular common language for children, their families, and communities.
When I was a kid, I saw there was a lot of hurt in the world, and that some people hurt more than others—so much addiction, abuse, and self-defeating behavior. People would tell me I was just too sensitive, but I knew this was real. What does it mean to be a fulfilled human being, a human being who thrives? This was on my mind at an early age.

So I read, then read more. Later, studying transpersonal psychology, I was exposed to texts from various traditions—Tibetan, Vipassana, Hindu, Sufi, Celtic, Joseph Campbell’s work on the Arthurian legends, Carl Jung’s work, the Tao Te Ching. I’m not a scholar, but I’ve studied enough of the great writings to see the patterns of how cultures deal with the question of suffering. It’s the stuff we’ve been talking about. Self-awareness. Concrete practices. The breath is about as universal as it gets. So all of that study was with me when I landed in the classroom and sat down with the kids on the carpet.

But you didn’t set out with the intention of introducing the wisdom traditions into the classroom, right?
No, my intention wasn’t to introduce the tenets of the world’s wisdom traditions to kindergartners, nor was it to reform schools. I was transitioning from a career in carpentry to a career in therapy, so I started working as a counselor. There was no such thing as SEL back then.

The first school I worked in was dysfunctional—kids acting out, the school board and teachers always fighting. I invested my energy in the handful of kids who were getting kicked out of class, and it didn’t take long to realize that they were great people.

I was in Jungian analysis at the time—you have to be in therapy to become a therapist—and I had a series of dreams. There were these repeating images of a wellspring, an upward surge of energy from a hidden source. I understood that something powerful was happening. Though it made no financial sense to stay at the second school I worked in, I ended up staying for 10 years. Over that entire decade, I never had a plan. I had one tool, then two tools, then three, then finally ended with what is now simply called the 12 TOOLS of TOOLBOX. The students and I developed them together. My intention was only to help these kids hurt less, to tap into the health and well-being that I could sense was inside of them all, waiting to be released.

You’ve conducted follow-up interviews with some of those original students.
We’ve done longitudinal, qualitative studies to look at how early exposure to The TOOLBOX Project impacts a person’s life after school. One fellow said that if it weren’t for his tools, he’d surely be in the penitentiary—nine years had passed, and he was still using his tools daily.

Recently, I was preparing to give a talk, and an old student of mine called up asking if she could come along and share her story. She spoke about the multi-generational aspect. Her brother had ADHD, her mother had an anger problem, and as a family they used the tools together. Now she was using them with her husband and her own kids.

Where does the sacred fit into your work?
Honestly, it doesn’t. You could say there’s something sacred about kindergartners in a room together, breathing and learning that they have resources within themselves, and I probably wouldn’t put up a fight. Monks all breathe together in monasteries, and maybe they call that practice sacred, too. For our purposes, though, why take it there? Everybody can agree that we need tools to help us be happy and healthy. That language isn’t divisive, so that’s what we use. Everything else—“sacredness,” “spirituality,” and “meditation”—gets left at the door. TOOLBOX is a cross-cultural, secular language and set of strategies or practices that are simply reflective of the wisdom traditions.

Religious language frequently causes rifts. There’s a branch of the SEL movement that draws on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, and while much of that work is really great, it’s a drawback, I think, that there are associations to organized religion. People’s minds go to robes and incense. The TOOLBOX Project is neutral. It’s not robes and incense. It’s not God. It’s not even psychology. Rather, it’s carpentry. It’s using simple tools to build the house of the self and the neighborhood of the classroom.

Finding the right language, the right metaphors, is important. Come to think of it, I don’t even use the words “respect” or “cooperation” in the curriculum. It’s all about respect and cooperation, but I don’t say it outright. 

Why not?
Those words send the wrong message. When a teacher says, “You need to respect that person and cooperate,” it goes to the mental realm, not the realm of experience—the memory of what it once felt like to be treated respectfully. Plus, the kids see a world around them where people aren’t practicing what they preach. At 4 years old they’re already noticing the hypocrisy of the world. I think of the tools as ways to heal that hypocrisy. There’s no hypocrisy in offering a person a practice and letting them decide if it works for them or not.

I want to go back to the sacred for a second. It is, of course, a vital subject, and it does underlie this entire discussion. Algebra is important, but algebra for what purpose? Not only do we need to learn mathematics and sciences, we need to ask ourselves why? To make money? To build bigger bombs and destroy ourselves? Or to understand biological systems and beauty, the miracle of the earth, and to preserve that miracle for many generations to come, seven generations or longer? Astronauts have gone to the moon, looked back at the little blue planet floating in the big black void, and been struck by the sacred. It’s the miracle of life itself, and the interdependence of all things, and our gratitude and appreciation for a place in the mix. That’s the sacred. Religion is a different subject.

I heard it said once that the sacred is an experience, not an idea. I think TOOLBOX helps children, families, and communities experience the sacred.

[This story was first published in 2016.]

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