You are probably hearing the phrase “social emotional learning” (SEL) everywhere right now. As educators, you know that our current environmental landscape is the driver behind SEL’s recent surge in education headlines. In a recent webinar with TeleTeachers school psychologist, Dr. Kacey Broadhurst, we explored the principles, research behind and implementation advice for social emotional learning. Here is what we learned.
This is not a new concept, but is perhaps more applicable than ever before.
Social emotional learning started off as a student-focused initiative, looking at student needs and well-being beyond the academics. It's a concept that started back in 1983, and has evolved over time to what we know now as the more widely used CASEL five, which was developed in 2005. Those five competencies are self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship skills.
We know as a society that learning is an interactive approach, and humans thrive from positive relationships and connectedness. Essentially, social emotional learning is part of our human development. The concept focuses on those non-academic barriers, with the hopeful outcome being healthy identities. Learning SEL competencies means learning the ability to manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and then make reasonable and caring decisions. With our current global pandemic, racial tensions and recent presidential election stress, never has there been a time when we needed that connectedness more.
“Anxiety among school-aged children is at an all time high. The National Institute of Health reported that one in three students between the ages of 13 and 18 will be diagnosed with anxiety, and during these times of crisis, prevailing stressors become worse. The climate of crisis heightens awareness of those social, structural and systemic inequities,” says Dr. Broadhurst.
Academic skills and content knowledge aren’t the only important factors in students’ success.
Within the framework of SEL, students learn practices that help them to feel physically safe and socially accepted and therefore better equipped to comply with social norms and expectations. This “pro-social” behavior has shown long-term improvements in skills, attitude and academic performance, and stretches beyond school into students’ outside lives. When students feel connected, there is a marked decline in anxiety, behavior problems and substance abuse. When there is room for emotional growth, students can go on to develop better problem-solving skills and be clear communicators. And those are skills employers are always looking for in a potential employee.
Anyone in special education can tell you that early intervention is the best intervention. Schools must do a needs assessment; looking at the needs of students, schools and districts to determine what practices are working and which need improvement. Important pieces to implementing SEL include establishing authentic family partnerships by empowering them to feel involved in school culture, activities and their student’s learning and promoting youth voice and engagement as a school culture.
SEL is not just a practice for students. It must begin with adults.
Educators are the engines that drive social emotional learning for the students, so they must first have the social emotional competencies for their own well-being in order to manage that nurturing relationship with their students. Educators with a high level of social emotional competency are better equipped to serve as a behavioral role model, and avoid the stress burnout that can accompany one of the most stressful professions one can occupy.
Educator burnout is a very real issue currently; it is a primary reason for educators to become dissatisfied and leave their positions. Frustration at not being able to affect change in the classroom, lack of fulfillment and having a hard time finding joy in the act of teaching, and generally being overwhelmed lead to educator burnout. Warning signs that an educator might be suffering from burnout include noticeable fatigue during the day, lack of social involvement where there once was involvement, reduced self-care and ruffled appearance. It is important to recognize these signs in colleagues, as these are most likely due to the lack of social emotional competencies. With leadership support, the empowerment and autonomy to implement healthy practices within the classroom, and providing respect for educators as experts and learners, school administrators can promote these competencies for their staff.
So how can we be on top of students’ mental well-being? Dr. Broadhurst advises tuning in to students’ behaviors.
“You’re the expert of these students, you’re with them every day. So knowing that behavior and noting any internal or external changes as well as visible, social and emotional behaviors should be monitored. Check with yourself, and make sure you’re available to provide that mental health first aid. And if you’re not, it’s important to recognize that as well.”