The Importance of SEL in Elementary Grades

As the 2021-2022 school year begins, we are more aware than ever of the need to support our students with social emotional learning (SEL). But why is it so important that we purposefully incorporate SEL into the classroom? In this blog series, we will be taking a look at why and how SEL can be utilized at each level of the K-12 environment.

As early elementary trained educators, the concept of SEL has been central to all the things that we do day to day to help our developmentally egocentric young children. From understanding themselves to getting along with one another in a classroom, SEL is at the core of an elementary education. So we may be thinking to ourselves, “What is all the fuss about needing to focus on SEL? Have a program for SEL? Complete training on SEL? Measure SEL?"

In the words of Traci Davis, former Superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Nevada, “Social and emotional learning is what great teachers do anyway.” Traci is right, great teachers are working on SEL as one of the many aspects of the high-quality learning that is happening in their classrooms, but this might not necessarily be in a planned way. This may be as simple as, ”I am going to group these children to develop their ability to cooperate on something they enjoy.” Or, it may be a much more complex series of lessons with planned text, that is being studied to consider the feelings and resulting actions of characters around the concept of identity and difference.

Research has shown that for every dollar invested on SEL in school there is a return of eleven dollars. SEL improves lifetime outcomes, leads to positive academic outcomes, and can reduce poverty. Given this, there is every reason to make sure SEL is prioritized in the nation’s classrooms.      

In elementary schools, we spend a lot of time sorting out difficulties that have occurred during recess such as working on the ability to share with others. We spend time modeling conflict resolution, helping students learn the language of emotions, using kind words and actions with others as well as praising children for making good choices and more. The only problem with this approach is that it is reactive rather than proactive and focuses on elements of interaction rather than the wide range of skills that SEL can be.  

 

Social and emotional learning is what great teachers do anyway.

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The CASEL framework breaks down SEL into five competencies that consider all aspects of social and emotional growth. These being self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. CASEL then breaks down the competencies into sub-skills and areas of focus, like empathy, teamwork, self-efficacy, impulse control, and personal reflection.  

By having a curriculum and a plan that actively teaches these skills to all children in a consistent way, the evidence shows that this reduces the amount of time focusing on the negative consequences of having low social and emotional skill levels. Teaching children the sub-skills of SEL gives them the tools they need to be as independent as possible at recess when things go wrong. As with any new learning, this is not going to instantly produce children who are not going to disagree or be able to set their goals for college attendance in the first grade, but with a consistent program across the school with similar language and modeling, it will ensure that less time is spent being reactive.  

 

SEL improves lifetime outcomes, leads to positive academic outcomes, and can reduce poverty.

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With teaching a child a new skill in school, you need to have a baseline of where that child is at before you start something new. It’s similar to the idea that you cannot teach a child to add two numbers if they have no concept of what a number is. This is true of all areas of the curriculum including SEL skills. As educators, we use our skills to assess where the children are in our classrooms, we will also use standardized assessments, and sometimes that intuition will be used too. If we know where the children are in their learning, planning their next steps is easier. We all know that subject curricula need adapting to our children, that one size does not fit all, that even in a class of thirty children you are likely to have a range of differing levels. This is true for SEL curricula/programs too, but assessing those SEL skill levels can be more problematic because we don't really know a child’s ability to manage stress without actually asking them. Think of the model quiet child who does everything that is asked of them.  It appears they manage their stress very well at school, but they are actually a big bundle of worry and nerves that explode every day at home. An assessment of social and emotional skills needs to have a child’s view element to it to give us a whole picture of where the next steps in learning need to be.

As an early elementary trained educator, the concept of SEL continues to be central to the development of those young egocentric children, but having a clear idea of what each one of them needs to focus on will make my teaching job so much easier.   

Assess your students’ SEL sub-skills with Satchel Pulse, a CASEL-aligned social emotional learning screener. Satchel Pulse assists schools in tracking the effectiveness of any supports with automated RTI tier placement recommendations and offers sub-skill intervention plans to help students develop their skills in areas of need. This comprehensive tool supports buildings with student SEL growth while also reducing administrator and staff workload.

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References:

https://casel.org/impact/