While the “it takes a village to raise a child” quote is oft overused and misattributed to an entire continent, it does still hold valuable insight about the challenges involved in making a child a worthwhile member of the community. The opposite though holds value as well in that the wholeness of a generation of children will determine the health of a village. The rise or fall of a civilization (village) can be determined in how their future generations will maintain or increase their nation’s value. Sparta was determined that all children would be raised as fierce warriors while the Athenians instilled democratic ideals. More recently there was a 2010 documentary, Babies, that explored how different cultures raise their children. And while it has been the prerogative of older generations to lambaste younger generations, that effort seems to have become more zealous with the current generation being maligned more harshly and regularly than I recall being done previously. Whether or not you believe young people are lacking in cultural and social skills it still makes sense that we would teach them those skills directly.
My experience in teaching students with emotional disturbances or with emotional challenges related to other conditions has required me to always take behavior, relationships, and management into consideration when planning lessons. Many of my students with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) led stressful lives due to histories of poverty and violence or just from fear of an unknown future. Studies show hormones like cortisol prevent learning because the fight or flight response keeps people on edge and blocks more reasoned thought processes. That is why it is first essential to create a safe environment conducive to learning. Then I had to directly teach social and emotional learning (SEL) skills since many students lacked examples of appropriate social interaction.
Caring for kids is an effective strategy to help students achieve and teaching them to care for each other is an even more efficient way to increase our impact. Our goal as teachers can’t just be to create a room of information boxes (that’s an engineers job). We are striving to create productive and caring humans who will be valued members of the school and larger community. We want our students to be capable of empathy so they can form the supportive and productive relationships upon which a society can flourish. So the bottom line of SEL is teaching those skills in addition to the academic ones.
Some might argue that the ‘common knowledge’ of SEL is far too uncommon, but one thing is certain that children today who grow up mostly in urban and suburban environments in a multimedia world filled with constant stimulation. This may contribute to the profound rise in depression and suicidal feelings. So it would seem that the necessity to teach appropriate self and social awareness and connection to others who could empathize is more essential than ever.
5 SEL Skills
There are a number of psychological, biological and social systems working together in regards to a person’s emotional health and many SEL instructional groups break it down differently. The most common structure though breaks SEL into five different skills to be developed.
- Self-Awareness: The ability to know one’s own thoughts and their relationship to behavior. It is innately tied to healthy self-confidence and an accurate assessment of personal strengths and weaknesses.
- Self-Management: The ability to regulate thoughts, emotions, and behavior across situations. This includes personal motivation as well as goal-setting.
- Social Awareness: The ability to understand and empathize with others. This involves respect, appreciating diversity, and recognizing family and community support systems.
- Relationship skills: The ability to cooperate, communicate, and maintain healthy relationships. This covers social pressure, resolving conflicts, and offering aid.
- Responsible Decision Making: The ability to make thoughtful and constructive choices about personal and social matters. This involves ethics, safety considerations, and objectivity.
A Brief SEL History
While there are currently federal and state policies regarding SEL, it wasn’t always considered an important core educational element. In one sense it harkens back to ancient philosophy on teaching the whole person that Plato extolled. Even the Maori and Confucian philosophy, though not directly mentioning self, recognize how the awareness of personal actions and thoughts affect the larger community.
More recently James Comer began the Comer School Development Program in the 60s to determine the ways a student’s contrasting home and school experiences impact their psychosocial development. Throughout the 80s they worked with underperforming schools in poor communities and were able to improve performance.Students who participated in SEL programs showed 11% gains in academic performance and a 10% decrease in emotional distress. In a societal context that produces an 11 times return on investment.
After those early successes, the program expanded. In 1998 they released a framework that could be replicated by other schools. In 1994 the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was founded and would become the predominant institution for SEL research and promotion. A number of books have been published to promote SEL to teachers and students. For teachers, I recommend Classroom Management Matters by Gianna Cassetta and I love reading The Dot and Too Shy for Show-and-Tell to students.
Whether you fall more into the nature or nurture camp (most teachers seem to favor the latter given their career path), it is clear that children develop at different rates emotionally and socially just as they do physically. When infants are learning to walk and speak we seem to have no qualm about lending them a hand, showing them the right way, and guiding them forward. Why do we not always make the same effort for our children’s emotional and social development? Is it because it’s less visually obvious?
There are a number of reasons to pursue emotional instruction even if it isn’t a skill as immediately apparent. As stated previously, SEL improves both academic performance and social competency. It teaches students positive relationships which improves classroom collaboration and decreases aberrant behaviors and bullying. It also allows students to be more prepared for the challenges that will eventually face them in their academic career and outside life. It increases perseverance and improves communication with others and about one’s internal feelings which can decrease depression.
Even for me, a relatively competent but introverted adult, I have to continue practicing and improving my ability to interact with others. It requires practice which can be done through direct instructions or simply by allowing everyday situations to present opportunities for you to aid students in practicing their skills for managing their options and resolving social challenges.
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Instruction in social development depends deeply on the emotional and physical maturity of students you are working with to determine how best to proceed. That said there are some universal concepts that can be addressed. It can be done through explicit instruction in the 5 SEL skills, integration into the academic curriculum, or simply by modeling through your instructional practices.
There are some activities that readily correlate with SEL. Discussing the emotional development of characters in a story can lead to self-inquiry, learning about debugging in computer science can lead to managing frustration, and digital citizenship is key for social interactions.
- Provide a Safe Environment – This is important because positive social instruction can’t be done in an antagonistic space. That doesn’t mean you need to remove all challenge and conflict as those can lead to positive perseverance and learning experiences. It does mean addressing student needs and creating a place where people feel connected. For more information check out 12 Steps to Create a Safe and Effective Space For Student learning.
- Instill Confidence – Part of that safe environment is demonstrating that there are ways to fail positively and that their self-identity isn’t determined solely by those struggles. Celebrate every success and allow them a fun environment that takes joy in exploring the unfamiliar.
- Encourage Open Discussions – Help students see how making some of their internal monologue external, they can learn to hone their internal feelings. Motivate students to share their feelings and listen to each other empathetically. Let them know their feelings are always okay, but their reaction to them is what makes a difference. Show them how to confidently assert their own desires while respecting those of others.
- Allow Collaboration – Giving opportunities through discussion or project-based learning benefits in teaching important relationship skills like communication, but it also gives students structure and a support system without overwhelming the instructor. make sure many of those group activities involve playful learning. Praise positive student interactions.
- Allow Choices – When environments are overly structured, they are unrealistic for what a student is likely to experience naturally. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with behavioral and academic structures in place, it just means you can begin to remove them when no longer necessary to allow for more challenges.
- Allow Challenges – Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are thoroughly necessary across any subject. That means a few open-ended problems create better learning opportunities than a whole packet full of simple worksheets.
- Be An Example – The old adage that students will learn more from what they see their teachers/parents do than anything they say is wholly true. You can have no positive impact on student SEL if you don’t demonstrate a positive emotional well-being yourself. That doesn’t mean you’re never sad or upset. In fact, those are great opportunities for you to show how to appropriately respond to those feelings.
As I said, there are a number of places you can find SEL resources across levels, but here are a few of my favorite ones.
- CASEL – As I said they have become the hub for all things SEL. Their resource guide is filled with tons of helpful information.
- Edutopia – The site has a number of helpful articles about SEL including a guide to the 5 Keys to SEL, why it’s essential, and SEL activities.
- Centervention – They share a large set of SEL activities that are geared mostly towards younger learners.
- Flocabulary – They have over 20 educational videos on social and emotional learning topics.
- Nearpod – They have a whole series of pre-made life skills lessons.
- Online Discussions – There are a number of ongoing discussions across social media amongst teachers on SEL. In fact, Tuesday, April 10th at 8:00 EST there will be a #FlocabChat on the topic of SEL. Feel free to join in.
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