What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)? Why is it important?

So the new superintendent is instigating a brand new program to support social and emotional learning in all the schools across the district, but why?  There is a wealth of  research that shows schools and school districts that have implemented school wide/district wide consistent approaches to teaching students social and emotional competencies, the school/district achieving increased academic achievement, improved behavior and leads to a return on the investment being extremely positive. As an educator, who wouldn't want that in their classroom?  

happy students group  study in classroom

What is Social and Emotional Learning ?

It’s all the things that we do in classrooms that are not directly curriculum content related, and there is a lot of it.  It’s the aspects of a classroom learning environment that do not get assessed in the state tests (yet), but without it, your classroom does not run smoothly and learning can be highly disrupted. 

In a classroom, where the students have poor social and emotional skills, the job of an educator is so much harder.  These students may not be even able to enter the room without having a loud disagreement about something and starting the lesson off with a conflict with you, as know that the best for all is an orderly, calm learning environment.   We all know that ‘class’ and have to prepare ourselves for that ‘lesson’ as it can be a battle that feels like you are never going to win whatever you try and do. 

The social and emotional learning could be seen in the student that is too anxious to get things wrong and will not try as they do not want to look foolish in front of their peers, how do you help them develop their resilience to give something a go, make a mistake and feel OK about it.  Some of these things are just inherent in our classrooms with the attitudes and expectations we have of all our students and some students just get it, but some students do not and they need help to ‘get it.  By having a consistent SEL program that is delivered to all, there is no inherent knowledge needed by anyone, expectations of students and their social emotional skills will be similar but will also give a clear pathway for all students to follow when something crops up.        

Within the CASEL* framework,  social and emotional learning is broken down into five competencies, these being self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.  A lot of states’ learning standards use these as a basis for what they expect of their students and to offer educators a pathway to support addressing these in their classroom.  These competencies are far reaching and if well planned for from Kindergarten through to twelfth grade can support students’ learning of appropriate social and emotional skills for life, not just school.     

Why is Social and Emotional Learning important ?

Within school, I am currently working with a young student who is a quite academically capable young lady, but due to many other factors and circumstances is not able to let adults know what she wants, feels or needs at all. She is able to have lengthy conversations about her drawings, unicorns, math work, fairies, books, anything sparkly but is not able to voice her simple wants, needs or feelings at all. At the point of difficulty or things that are not going to her plan, everything just stops (the sobbing generally starts) and there are few ways to break into that, to try and help her for the next hour or so. Yes, she is only six at the minute and we have lots of time to support her moving beyond this behavior (probably with a lot of specialist help) but not just for her learning/education but for her quality of life and her time in the world of work.

Having been in the position of hiring staff into an education team, what I look for in my new employees is the ability to communicate well with others, effective team member skills, the ability to get along with other people, and ability to be empathic and supportive of others, not on their grade point average. This is echoed by recruitment consultants and large corporations. They can teach the employee the day-to-day work quickly, but teaching them the social awareness of being in a team and making it work is the skill they want their new employee to have when they walk through the door on the first day.

So our long term aim for social and emotional learning is a productive citizen of the future. The more immediate aim of a social and emotional learning program would be to give the students the skills so that they can support their mental health and well being needs as the longer these go unaddressed the greater chance of potential life limiting behaviors grows. We are in a fortunate position that we can have an immediate impact on this in our classroom, today. It’s also the idea of getting the right social and emotional tools in the hands of the students that need them as soon as we can and developing their skills to keep these tools relevant and useful.

In using a social and emotional learning program in your classroom it has the potential to build fully rounded workers, but there are also some huge benefits for you in class now. By putting a program in place that is consistent across the school it means that there are less opportunities for students to try and bypass the system, to get away with things or use the phrase ‘that’s not fair this doesn’t happen in Mr. So and So’s classroom.’ It helps for the students to feel heard and valued in what they are doing so are more likely to take learning risks that will move their progress on further. It helps that student who used to come into your classroom in a loud argument with a fellow student be more respectful and think about others when they enter your room as they have some awareness of others’ learning and their impact of their actions on others, too.

For my student, by having a program of social and emotional learning, it normalizes the skills, it normalizes that everyone does it, it shows that it is as important as the math work (or the sparkly things), it gives a voice to the absent feelings, wants and needs and it is the pathway to being able to productive member of society in a couple of decades.

 

*(Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning)