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Building Capacity for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL: Defining the Term

Social and emotional learning, abbreviated as SEL, is the new buzzword in the education space. However, it has been subconsciously present for decades, latent in classroom questions such as ‘Why are we learning about kings and queens who have long been dead?’ or ‘Where would we use algebra in our day-to-day lives?’ These questions might sound piercing to many educators but are critical when evaluating the level of cognition or measuring student success. The fundamental aim of all learning is far beyond academic achievement; it is about acquiring knowledge, values, and skills that are transferrable and equip us to lead our lives positively and dignifiedly. Consequently, SEL is a methodology that can easily permeate into classroom lessons in order to ensure that students can understand their emotions and deal with those emotions in an optimistic and constructive way so that they become better, more productive, self-cognizant, and socially aware citizens outside of the classroom in the years to come.

To understand the underlying principles of SEL, we must delve deeper into the context where it generates from and thrives, i.e., the classroom. The classroom performs the role of a levelling ground where students are put together and encouraged to compete with one another and puts all the students on an equal footing for them to succeed in life. To account for these differences and to help students grapple with the thoughts that arise from them, SEL provides students with a lens through which they can see the world around them with empathy, humanity, and inclusivity in equal measure.

The Core Competencies

Formally defined, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to the process through which individuals acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop strong identities, manage emotions effectively, achieve personal and collective goals, demonstrate empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines five core competencies for SEL that can be applied in the classroom, at home, and in students’ communities.

These five core competencies are:

Self-awareness – To be able to identify your emotions, personal goals, and value systems, comprehend how they impact your behaviour, and see how they are interconnected. This includes the ability to accurately assess your strengths and limitations to gain clarity about your future plans and abilities.

Self-management – To take control and ownership of your thoughts, emotions, and actions in various situations and to be able to regulate them in all kinds of situations in order to set and achieve personal goals.

Social awareness – The ability to maintain relationships with people from diverse backgrounds with feelings of compassion, empathy, and generosity. It also involves respecting the norms laid down by the school, the society, and the community.

Relationship skills – This competency focuses on establishing rewarding relationships with others by listening actively, peacefully resolving conflict, cooperating, knowing when to ask for or offer help, and resisting unnecessary social pressure.

Responsible decision-making – Choosing how to act or respond to a situation based on learned behaviours such as ethics, safety, and acceptable behavioural norms weighing consequences and the well-being of others and yourself. It also includes realistically weighing the aftermath of one’s actions and acting accordingly.

The Dramatic Rise of SEL Instruction

In the post-pandemic world, SEL has emerged as an important focal point in reimagining education spaces across the globe. Dr Dave Paunesku from CASEL opines, ‘If we really want all students to leave school having developed certain academic, social, personal, and cultural capacities, we need to think really carefully about whether we as educators are creating the types of experiences that we know from the research will help develop those capacities.’

This is also where school leaders and other management-related stakeholders can step in and contribute. School leaders play a critical role in fostering schoolwide activities and policies that promote positive school environments, such as establishing a team to address psychological issues; adult modelling of social and emotional competence; and developing clear norms, values, and expectations for all students and staff members. Since SEL is not a very formal subject, it is an ideology, and policies need to be revised and reformulated, keeping in mind the need to provide structures for emotional and physical well-being, engage in practices that affirm diversity, create spaces for elevating students’ voice, and agency, prioritizing the need for critical reflection, and partnering with families to practise mutually beneficial approaches to SEL. Regardless of the medium of teaching-learning – virtual or physical – the transformative power of SEL cannot be overlooked.

Classroom Strategies

One of the most prevalent SEL approaches worldwide involves training teachers to deliver explicit lessons that teach social and emotional skills and then finding opportunities for students to reinforce their use throughout the day. In their Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning, A.P. Williford and C.S. Wolcott state, ‘Teachers can also naturally foster skills in students through their interpersonal and student-centred instructional interactions throughout the school day. Adult-student interactions support SEL when they result in positive student-teacher relationships, enable teachers to model social-emotional competencies for students, and promote student engagement.’

There are several different approaches to incorporating SEL into everyday classroom routines. Some teachers have a more formally designated portion of the school day devoted to SEL — sometimes taught in homeroom. Teachers may want students to journal or write about their thoughts and feelings on a particular SEL lesson or even have younger students partner with an older “buddy classroom” (or vice versa) to help students across different age levels bond or find common ground.

Other teachers work SEL-related lessons into more formal subjects, like math, history, or reading. For instance, examples of SEL-in-action can include assigning a group project where students self-delegate roles to work together for the good of the group, role-playing as historical figures to understand the rationale behind a person’s actions, or for students to conduct formal interviews with one another to take a pulse-check on current events.

Inside a classroom, especially with younger kids, it is easier to build in SEL by introducing routines that are easily executable, require no preparation, and are subject-agnostic. Detailing some of these below:

  1. Visualisation – an activity that can be sandwiched at any point in the middle of the lesson, it includes having students imagine what ‘stress’ looks like inside their body and then asking them to release it

  2. Noise Isolation – Have your students focus on one particular noise they hear inside the school environment. Then they should think about the last time that they interacted with it.

  3. Mindfulness – a powerful strategy both in childhood and in adult life; use the STOP (Stop, Take a breath to calm down, Observe the situation, Proceed with a solution)

  4. Name the emotion - Have each student call out their emotion at that moment. This helps each student know how they and other students are feeling, what different emotions look like, and how to better interact with their peers based on how they’re feeling.

  5. Stress throw - Let your students write down their fears, insecurities, etc on a piece of paper, tear it, and throw it away. This is also known as an ‘emotional check-in’. By doing this activity at the start of each class, you’ll acknowledge their barriers to learning and create a safe space for your students to overcome them.

  6. Share-out - Have your students share moments in the day or week when they have demonstrated growth and a fixed mindset.

  7. Appreciation, Apology, Aha - Have your students sit in a circle and share an appreciation, apology, or realisation with the group. This lets them take stock of their feelings and deal with many emotions more efficiently as they become adults.

  8. Who’s who? - Pair your students up with a student they don’t know or don’t talk to that often, and provide the pairs with five questions to ask each other. This will enable discussions and might facilitate new friendships.

  9. Meet and Greet - When students arrive in the classroom — virtually or in person — give them a list of different greeting options such as Wave, Foot tap, High Five, Fist bump, Thumbs up, Jazz hands, and Elbow bump. This is a particularly good activity for kindergartners and for small grades.

  10. Calm-down corner – Designate a calm-down corner in class. Send students there for 3-5 minutes when they are experiencing emotional outbursts or meltdowns so that they can acknowledge that emotion, deal with it, and move forward to experience the learning that is happening in class while being in control of themselves.

The Final Word

Students of all ages grapple with various emotions, including anger, fear, uncertainty, optimism, and motivation. How students process their complex emotions and experiences will be influenced by whether they have at least one “secure base” to turn to.

To conclude, in the words of Meena Srinivasan, the Program Manager at McGraw Hill Education, ‘Before I started working with SEL, sometimes I got so stressed that I lost contact with my original intention for becoming a teacher. SEL has rekindled that light inside of me. It’s the light of why I became an educator in the first place — to help students connect with their dreams and aspirations and become better people who contribute to the world in a positive way. That’s the power of the SEL lens; it fosters purpose, meaning, and deep connection.’

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