Note: Mary Kate Land teaches Montessori grades 4-6, and is the new facilitator for our Social and Emotional Learning group. She's got some excellent ideas and years of experience working with SEL. We hope you'll join us for some practical, supportive and inspirational discussions.
When I first began working in the field of Social/Emotional Learning more than twenty years ago, the term SEL had not yet been invented, and that made it somewhat challenging to talk with teachers and parents about promoting these skills. Since that time, the educational landscape has evolved to the point that most educators realize how important the psychological aspects of the learning environment can be for individual student progress as well as group cohesiveness. Though we'd like to jump up and cheer, this may actually be a more perilous situation for our field than the total obscurity we've thus far endured.
Avoiding the Soup du Jour Effect
We are at risk of becoming the Soup du Jour of educational concepts. If this is our "fifteen minutes" we need to be prepared to use it in such a way that SEL becomes an expected curriculum feature and not a trendy, but momentary focus which is forgotten as the reform effort moves forward. Perhaps the best way to do this is to help teachers acquire practices which promote Social/Emotional Learning as well as streamline classroom routines. Here are some commonly used SEL techniques which have the potential to become self-perpetuating due to their usefulness for teachers and the interest they invoke from students.
Technique 1: Implement Regular Class Meetings
Regular class meetings which allow students and their teachers to meet face-to-face to discuss challenges promote responsibility and thoughtfulness in students. Meetings can be developmentally appropriate for children as young as 3 or 4 if they are kept short and students have an active part. Often class meetings at the youngest ages involve students demonstrating or practicing certain social skills (greeting, apologies, requests, etc.). As children grow, they take a more active part in running meetings. Older students select meeting topics and help establish meeting routines. Once students reach upper elementary school, they can begin to coordinate meetings independently. Middle and high school students sometimes even formalize their meetings, using Roberts Rules of Order to guide the process.
Technique 2: Use Conflict Resolution to Teach Problem-Solving Skills
Having a protocol that students can use to guide discussions about interpersonal conflict helps students handle disagreements in positive ways. Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction. Teachers often worry that time spent handling interpersonal conflict will rob the students of time on task. The goal is frequently to stop conflict situations as quickly as possible and get back to the real business at hand. Learning a conflict resolution strategy brings interpersonal conflict into the realm of "intentional curriculum" and legitimizes the time we spend learning these skills. When developing problem-solving techniques is seen as a vital aspect of healthy progress, our interpersonal challenges cease to be distractions and take on the color of opportunities for meaningful learning. We will be talking more about specific conflict resolution strategies in Edutopia's Social and Emotional Learning group.
Technique 3: Use Emotional Sandwiching
Students who see their classroom as a refuge come to school with light steps, anticipating their interactions with classmates and teachers. We can help promote this type of warmth by starting and ending every school day with a personal connection. This doesn't have to be an elaborate or time-consuming ritual. It can be as simple as providing a warm greeting to welcome each person as they arrive in the morning, and then closing with a short reflective circle before dismissal. Some classrooms like to appoint a student as the official greeter. Students enjoy suggesting topics for the closing group, and this can be a great time to focus attention on enriching events the class is planning for the near future. The main idea of this exercise is to help students to be mindful of the importance of their work, and the implications it has for all of their lives.
Technique 4: Build Emotional Capital in Ourselves
Perhaps the most important thing a teacher can do to promote healthy SEL development is to prepare him- or herself. When we are emotionally balanced and feeling appreciated and valued, we are better able to be present for our students and support their growth. Stress relief techniques and positive collegial relationships help us to feel calm and confident. We build emotional capital for ourselves by caring for our own needs.
Technique 5: Build Emotional Capital in Our Kids
We can also build capital for children through our interactions with them. Each time we have the opportunity to communicate with a child, we can use that interaction to support the child. Supportive messages (such as noting positive behaviors and making encouraging suggestions) communicate that students are on the right track and lead to greater student confidence. These types of interactions help students to trust their teachers, bringing us closer together. When conflicts arise, the strength of this relationship will often determine the level at which students will engage in honest dialog. If we can think of our interactions as a banking system, we want to be sure we are making plenty of deposits (emotionally supportive communications) in relation to the number of withdrawals (requests for self-control and cooperation) we require. Students whose accounts have been overdrawn by life may need many deposits before a single withdrawal can be expected.
Many of these ideas are widely practiced by educators, even without the awareness that they promote SEL. A wealth of classroom-tested ideas exist which teachers all over the country could include in their work if they were aware of the ease and importance of teaching these concepts. The way in which we rise to the challenge of disseminating this information could determine whether SEL fades into the background, or moves to the forefront of this wave of reform, becoming an essential aspect of curriculum at every level. If teachers perceive that these ideas are growing because they work to make classrooms function more smoothly and meet the needs of students more thoroughly, they will adopt SEL friendly practices.
This is a critical moment in time for SEL practitioners. Please join me on the Social and Emotional Learning group to explore specific ways in which to promote these important ideas. We are currently creating a wiki to archive the information shared in this group so that new participants have background on the programs and practices that have been helpful to other users. Let us take on the challenge of sharing the specific techniques we use for class meetings, conflict resolution, and promoting emotional balance for teachers and students.