Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible Decision-Making

This blog is the fifth in a 5-part series by Adam Elder, Westside's Director of Counseling and SEL. At Westside, we believe that all teaching and learning is both social and emotional. In this series, Adam will be showcasing how we teach students the five pillars of social-emotional learning (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.) This blog focuses on responsible decision making.

The Personal Triptych: A Lesson on Responsible Decision Making

Throughout my blog series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies, I highlighted a variety of activities that I have used to teach SEL skills at Westside this year. This final post features Responsible Decision Making which is, in many ways, a culmination of these prior skills: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. You do not have to dig very deep to see how these SEL areas are woven into the skills that define Responsible Decision Making:

  • Identifying solutions for personal and social problems
  • Anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions
  • Recognizing how critical thinking skills are useful both inside and outside of school
  • Reflecting on one’s role to promote personal, family, and community well-being
  • Evaluating personal, interpersonal, community, and institutional impacts

Even though these skills are so deeply connected to social and emotional learning, it is my experience that responsible decision making is often approached from a largely objective, analytical perspective - like an equation or a puzzle: Input the right information or pieces in the right order and then solve to find the right answer.

This is not to say that analyzing a situation and any relevant information isn’t important. It is! As you read on about the Personal Triptych, however, you will see that responsible decision making is much more an expression of who we are and what we value than it is a calculation. 

So… What is a Personal Triptych?

That was certainly the question from our 8th graders earlier this year as we took an unconventional approach to discussing their legacy at Westside School, and their goals for the remainder of the year.

I shared with them an example of a triptych, which is a three-paneled work of art:

I then invited students to create a Personal Triptych of their own with the following instructions:

Panel 1: Use visual representations (no words) to show how they see themselves now.

  • Who are you?
  • How do you feel about yourself?
  • How do I see myself as a student, family member, friend, etc.?
  • How do you think others see you?
  • What do you value?
  • What are your strengths? Areas for growth?
  • Who helps/has helped you become who you are?
  • What pictures, colors, textures, symbols, etc. represent how you see yourself?

Panel 2: Leave this blank for now

Panel 3: Use visual representations (no words) to show how they want to see themselves at the end of the school year.

Below is the Personal Triptych I created for myself during this lesson and shared with the students. I explained that I was the small boat in panel 1 and that the surroundings represented my experience during the school year to that point: some intimidating craggy rocks and rough waters, but also mixed with some calm waters and beautiful scenery. In panel 3, my boat is larger because I want to feel connected to more people at Westside. This feeling of deeper connections will then help make the rough waters feel calmer and the tall, craggy rocks less intimidating.

Three panel triptych with mountains on the left, blank in the middle and a boat on the right


When they finished panels 1 and 3, they shared them with each other in small groups.

When we came back together as a class, we began discussing the middle section, and I asked them why they think panel 2 is left blank.

“It shows that between now and then hasn’t happened yet.”

“We don’t know yet what will happen between now and then.”

These statements are in fact true! However, I called attention to the fact that they were able to visualize their future self even though the time between now and then is so uncertain. I asked them what would need to happen for panel 3 to be true at the end of the year, and they began discussing the active role they would need to play to get from where they are to where they want to be. The students recognized that while panel 2 consists of what is yet to come, getting from panel 1 to panel 3 would be largely dependent on the decisions they make between now and then.

As you can see, these decisions are not about problems with a correct answer to deduce. In fact, very few decisions have a single “right” answer. Instead, these decisions are expressions of who they are as they imagine a better future for themselves and others, of which there are infinite possibilities. Embedded in the subtext of the decisions they will make are answers to questions like:

  • “Who am I?”
  • “What do I value?”
  • “How do I want others to see me?”
  • “What do I believe about myself, others, and our world?”
  • “What is my place in the world?"

At Westside, we teach students the SEL skills they need to answer these questions with conviction. We recognize that their answers will significantly impact the decisions they make, and we are confident that our students will leave Westside and make a better future - one that is characterized by hope, kindness, connection, and justice.