Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

It’s Time for Social and Emotional Learning for All

May 20, 2014 Updated April 17, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

Over the last decade, increased attention has been paid to the social and emotional learning (SEL) needs of children. This area of learning is necessary and essential to address -- for children and adults. It's time that schools take responsibility for meeting the entire range of learning needs that educators have -- the need to use new technologies, to understand and implement new standards, to use new assessment strategies, and their needs to attend to their own social and emotional learning.

SEL and Adults

SEL for adults isn't that different than what we are starting to offer children. SEL includes recognizing and understanding emotions, strategies for managing emotions, developing the ability to recognize and understand emotions in others, and strategies for responding to the emotions of others. SEL also includes explicitly teaching and practicing strategies to develop emotional resiliency -- the ability to bounce back after adversity. This is an area of professional development, I believe, that deserves more attention and time than workshops on the new standards, the Common Core. Why? SEL is foundational for educators to build the skills to manage the tidal wave of changes and to be effective in their responses to changes.

Why SEL for educators?

I'm sure that those reading this can come up with a dozen reasons why the grown-ups working in schools might benefit from SEL, but I'm going to list the top reasons I use to convince those with power (decision-making, resource-allocation) that spending precious training time on SEL for educators is necessary, perhaps urgent, and incredibly valuable.

1) Feelings exist. Teachers (and principals, assistant principals, coaches, and so on) have feelings. We can try to ignore that they exist or wish that people would deal with them on their own outside of work, but we could also acknowledge them and see how we can address them. Feelings might just be the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

2) Change generates more feelings. And we're in a tidal wave of changes in our education system: Common Core, new assessments, new curriculum, new technology, and so on. For the majority of human beings, our primary emotional response to change is anxiety. It's just the way our brains are wired. We can fight with our neurological structures, or we can work with them. There are some simple ways to work with our responses to change so that they don't spiral out into craziness. The wonderful thing about our brains is that they can change, they are moldable, neuroplasticity, the scientists call it. We can work with them so that we can manage the emotions that come up with change. This is what SEL is all about.

3) Feelings have consequences. They can motivate and energize and bring us closer to others, or they can make us sick, angry, "resistant", and a major obstacle to positive change. We deal with them or they're going to continue to take over.

An Ultimatum

For the last ten years I've been an instructional coach and have been thinking about how to help adults improve their practice so that our students get the education they need and deserve. Emotions come up in coaching conversations more than anything else: the need to get support in understanding and processing them, the need to experience empathy, the need to feel that you're not alone. I've wished this wasn't the case, (and that we could just talk about lesson planning or literature circles) but I've learned that unless I address emotions (and essentially offer SEL), we can't get to the rest of it. I spend a great amount of coaching time offering social and emotional learning support. And people can't learn when they are feeling overwhelmed by emotions. One of my maxims as a coach is to meet people where they are. If they're sad, I need to meet them there.

I'm going to make another broad and provocative statement: Unless we (those of us working for school reform and transformation) address feelings and attend to the feelings that adults have and include social and emotional learning into the scope of PD that teachers are expected to engage in, it's all over. The battle is lost.

The numbers I use to argue this case start with the statistics around teacher retention. In the Oakland Unified School District where I work, we lose a third of our teachers every year. After five years, only one in five teachers still remain. The turn over of principals is even higher -- although it's not tracked as carefully as teacher turnover. We're losing professional capital, institutional knowledge, and the ability to sustain change efforts; we also invest a lot of money into all kinds of things that we lose when we have such high turnover.

Next Important Steps

We can't expect teachers to do their best work and to be calm and patient with all kids if they're not getting support for managing their emotions -- and if in addition, they're being yelled at, intimidated, or unappreciated by those supervising them (which sadly is the case in many places).

It's not working for us to wish that they'd deal with their feelings outside of the workplace; it's time that administrators at all levels of educational organizations take some responsibility for helping educators manage the stresses of working in schools. This isn't as complicated or as hard as it might seem.

In my next blog I'll offer some simple suggestions for social and emotional learning for adults working in schools. What are your ideas and thoughts on this topic? Please share in the comments section below.

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