By Jason Gross
When it comes to education, most people think that curriculum generally covers reading, writing and arithmetic; failing to recognize that it can cover more than just the fundamentals of academic learning. Consider the holistic program known as social and emotional learning (SEL), which teaches students valuable interpersonal skills and helps them to gain a better understanding of their feelings. The SEL program’s strengths are that students, parents and the school all work together, and that the program can be integrated into the rest of the school curriculum. According to Anna-Lisa Mackey from LearningSEL LLC., “social emotional learning is something we should be doing with all students…we should be teaching [these] skills as the plate on which all academic subjects are on top of. It’s the way in which we should be working with people in general, not just with children.”
WHERE DID SEL GET ITS START?
The SEL program started in the late 1960’s, when Dr. James Comer began working at Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center. He piloted the Comer School Development Program in 1968 with the goal of nurturing students’ social and emotional skills alongside their academic work. In 1988, in an article in the Scientific American, Comer wrote that the program was based on his idea that “the contrast between a child’s experiences at home and those in school deeply affects the child’s psychosocial development and that this in turn shapes academic achievement.” The School Development Program focused on African-American students from two poor, low-achieving elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut, and reinforced students’ accomplishments both at school and at home. By the early 1980’s, due to the collaborative work of teachers, parents, principals and mental health workers, truancy and behavioral problems declined and academic performance increased to above the national average.
Yale and, by extension, New Haven produced many advocates who became key figures in the SEL movement. Yale Psychology professor Roger Weissberg worked with Timothy Shriver, a Yale graduate and educator in the New Haven Public Schools, to set up the K-12 New Haven Social Development program. Weissberg also co-chaired the W.T. Grant Consortium, a group established to create a system that addressed students’ feelings and emotional skills as part of each school’s curriculum. This group released a framework, listing the emotional skills required for emotional competence as, “identifying and labeling feelings, expressing feelings, assessing the intensity of feelings, managing feelings, delaying gratification, controlling impulses, and reducing stress.”
In 1994, it could be said that the term social and emotional learning was well on its way to being integrated into the education community; the Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was created, and three years later, nine CASEL collaborators coauthored Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, which established and defined the foundational principles of the SEL field.
WHAT IS SEL?
SEL helps students develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and skills for responsible decision-making. Anna-Lisa explains that “emotion and self-regulation are really the lynch pins of social emotional learning.” There are many behaviors that today’s teachers encounter in the classroom that make it hard for them to actually teach their lessons. SEL gives teachers an understanding of what is happening in their students’ brains when they have an emotional reaction. The amygdaloid and limbic systems are always asking the question, “am I safe?” and according to Anna-Lisa, the brain “uses any information it has about emotion to answer that question. When it thinks ‘we’re not safe’, it puts us on the path of ‘flight, fight or freeze’…we see this self-preservation strategy being used by kids in the classroom because it helps them, and it’s impulsive, reactive and has nothing to do with calming down, thinking, problem solving and planning. There’s no higher order thinking going on when that’s happening…this is very disruptive to teaching, but emotionally and socially damaging to kids as well.” SEL gives students emotional language and self-regulation tools to “know how to deal with [themselves] and to how to behave well and understand [their] emotional life.”
The SEL method is grounded in four goals for students:
1) positive social behavior
2) fewer conduct problems
3) less emotional stress
4) improved academic performance
To reach these goals, teachers, principals, parents, specialized staff and student advisers work together, using methods such as coaching, conflict resolution, group decisions, cooperation and mentoring. SEL sessions can happen individually, but are also integrated into other school curriculum. This is so that any learning gained in these sessions can be reinforced as part of the overall education plan. Anna-Lisa says that SEL can be effective even if it isn’t working in this way: “ideally, it makes sense for parents to be using similar strategies at home, so that kids can learn the skills more effectively. However, if that doesn’t happen, what we do find is that kids are going home and using the skills anyway because the kids are seeing that these skills work, not only in their classroom, but on their playground and in the community. So, they’re using these skills at home and the parents are coming to school going, ‘my child is doing this when I try to calm him down, tell me more about that.’”
SEL AND PERSONALIZATION
An important component of the SEL program is that it is crafted around the unique needs of each student. Each student learns and experiences lessons in a different way, and with that in mind, SEL is equipped to be flexible enough to meet the demands of many students. By learning about themselves and understanding their strengths, students’ academic and emotional progress can be enhanced by SEL educators through mentorship and coaching.
When it comes to SEL training, many teachers have been short-changed; a recent study, sponsored by CASEL and conducted by the University of British Columbia, found that “the overwhelming majority (51-100%) of teacher education programs in 49 states did not address any of the five core Students’ SEL dimensions.” To help bridge this skills gap, teachers can use tools like ONEder, which enable educators to deliver personalized lessons, manage student IEP goals and track their progress.
Anna-Lisa gives an account of a common struggle teachers have in incorporating SEL into their classrooms; “[the IEP] may say that they have a child that is impulsive, and that they are blurting out answers to questions and interrupting the class. [It] might say, we want the child to be able to raise their hand 5 times out of 10, when they are asked a question. But what’s the strategy to help the child get to that goal. Just telling the child, “we want you to be able to raise your hand”? Well, they know that. They know that’s the goal, but their impulsivity and their inability to have self-regulation is getting in the way of that. So, what would help them to be able to do that? To achieve that goal. That’s not what’s considered when you’re looking at these plans. And so, with SEL, when you look at the actual skills, that is where you say, ‘ok, they need to learn this particular skill and this is how I’m going to go teaching them to learn that skill.’” ONEder can help with this problem; in the ONEder platform, goals can be broken down in to step-by-step actions, performance data can be easily recorded and collected in a way that is easy to analyze. By taking the leg-work out of data gathering and tracking, ONEder leaves more time for the teacher to spend with their students.
How do you use SEL in your classroom? Have you found any tools that make it easier to incorporate SEL into your lessons? We’d love to hear your success stories in the comments below!
Sources: Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Kitil, M. J., & Hanson-Peterson, J. (2017). To reach the students, teach the teachers: A national scan of teacher preparation and social and emotional learning. A report prepared for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia.