Social-Emotional Learning: The Time for Action is Now

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By Dr. Brandie Oliver, Butler University

No one could predict the events that have transpired over the last several months.  Our school communities are facing extremely challenging and uncertain times. Students and educators are entering classrooms with increased anxiety, fears, and exposure to traumatic events.  The country has been overwhelmed with two pandemics. One pandemic is COVID 19, and the second pandemic is racism, which has been entrenched in our country’s founding and still pervasive today.  COVID-19 has taken over 100,000 deaths in the U.S., and systemic racism was forced to the forefront of collective consciousness with the death of George Floyd. 

These pandemics reaffirm and illuminate the need for SEL to help care and support educators, students, and their families.  With these pandemics, exposure of the existing inequities in education will continuously shape how we ‘re-invent’ and ‘re-imagine’ school. More than ever, priority must be given to empathy, resilience, relationship-building, and emotional intelligence. In doing so, we will work collaboratively and proactively to innovate and rebuild our education systems and further develop the necessary SEL skills for lifelong success.

The effects of the pandemics have resulted in school communities, administrators, teachers, counselors, students, and families have learned to live in what some may say, a constant state of uncertainty. In preparing for this academic semester, educators have been tasked with an almost impossible challenge to try to anticipate, plan, and respond to numerous possibilities they may encounter. Stress, worry, and varying levels of excitement all surround the start of this school year. However, it is critical to acknowledge our adult educators, students, and families will need a different level of support than years past. Much discussion has taken place about the loss of academic time and learning deficits that will need to be addressed. While both of these issues are important, I recommend the primary focus needs to be on SEL.  To do so, dedicate time, effort, and attention to strengthen relationships with every student and building community through SEL and culturally responsive re-engagement strategies. The development of SEL knowledge and skills is critical for addressing the emotional and mental health challenges facing today’s youth and adults.

Defining Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the process through which both students and adults “acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” 

Importance of SEL

The evidence is robust to support the integration of SEL. Neuroscience shows that emotion, attention, and learning are linked. With increased feelings of stress, fear, and uncertainty, a student’s brain can be in a constant flight, fight, or freeze mode – making learning nearly impossible.  Infusing SEL skills within instruction that focus on emotional regulation, attention, and connection will help alleviate the anxieties and allow the brain to engage in learning.

When teachers embrace and implement SEL within their practice, benefits include reduced levels of stress, a stronger focus on learning, and better relationships with students. Positive school climate starts with positive relationships. Research also shows SEL has a direct impact on school climate. Additionally, comprehensive SEL has been found to have a positive impact on academic achievement.  

Many school systems across the state have delved into the implementation of SEL, finding innovative strategies to support educators, students, and families. These include providing developmentally appropriate strategies for identifying and regulating emotions, intentional relationship-building strategies, increasing stress-management capabilities, and practicing self-care. An ongoing vision and systematic approach to SEL cultivates a caring, compassionate, participatory, and equitable learning environment.  This approach actively involves all students in their social, emotional, behavioral, and academic growth. The systemic approach will infuse SEL into every aspect of students’ daily lives—across every classroom, throughout the school day, and in their homes and communities. 

While SEL alone will not solve all the current needs, it is an integral component and needs to be integrated within every school’s plans, policies, and procedures.  In closing, here are a few key takeaways as well as fundamental SEL strategies that can be implemented quickly and comprehensively.

Key Takeaways

1.   SEL knowledge, attitudes, and skills development need to occur and be embedded within academic learning, not in isolation.  

2.   High-quality, ongoing professional development is required to help educators develop their own SEL knowledge and skills. 

3.   SEL knowledge, attitudes, and skills need to be based on measuring dispositions and skill development, not on traditional and solely academic gains.

Fundamental SEL Strategies

A Smile:   A simple smile can elevate moods and increase positive emotions. Smiling helps build connections with others. By greeting students with a smile, educators can increase engagement, reduce misbehavior, and promote a sense of belonging.

Learning Names:  Ensure educators know the names of their students. It is crucial to identify and call students by their names, as well as know the correct pronunciation. In some events, educators may be tempted to shorten names that are perceived as difficult to pronounce.

Accentuate the Strengths:  Use a strength-based approach to teaching and learning. Help students identify and develop their personal strengths. When praising students, notice and label the strength the student demonstrated.

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