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Bringing Intention to Social-Emotional Learning

07 Jul 2021 by Allie Kallmann

How have children’s social and emotional needs changed this year?

That’s one of the major concerns Teachstone has been hearing from leaders and educators across the country. Even before the pandemic, teachers in early childhood settings, elementary school, and beyond had increasingly been paying attention to children’s self-regulation, social skills, and other emotional needs. With so much turmoil and loss, what has shifted? How can educators prepare to support children? And...how can leaders prepare to support their teaching staff?

To tackle these questions, we brought together Amanda Alexander, VP of Policy and Partnership Development at Teachstone; Bridget Hamre, Co-Founder and CEO at Teachstone; Gene Pinkard, Aspen Institute Director of Practice and Leadership; and Bloodine Barthelus, Director of Practice Innovations at CASEL. Our experts shared the principles they think are most important for social-emotional learning, the challenges they’re anticipating, and how thoughtful instructional leaders are rolling out new social-emotional initiatives.

Avoiding the “false dichotomy”

All of our panelists brought up this idea early on in the conversation: social-emotional learning and academic learning are not separate constructs. Really, SEL can’t not be part of a curriculum - it’s happening all the time. The question, as our panelists pointed out, is one of intentionality. We wouldn’t expect children to just “pick up” mathematics if teachers just taught addition when the opportunity arose. Without a systematic, intentional approach to social and emotional learning, children are stuck navigating their feelings and environments alone, often without the skills they need.

In fact, the research shows that children’s learning happens through relationships. When children feel valued, supported, heard, and seen, they’re able to engage more deeply with academic content. Academic and social-emotional content don’t need to be taught at different times, and one does not need to be sacrificed in favor of the other.

These relationships rely on supportive and supported teachers. Through simple, daily interactions and routines, educators can foster the kind of classroom community that children need to thrive. At the same time, educators need support, too. At the start of the pandemic, there was already a teacher shortage, and those who were in the classroom were underpaid and undersupported. In the last two years, it’s only gotten more challenging. Educators want to build relationships through meaningful interactions with students, but they need help from leaders to create environments that prioritize these relationships, to build their own social and emotional skills, and to develop specific strategies for classroom management and challenging behavior. Without that support, they can’t do their best for children - and ultimately are more likely to leave the profession.

A closing window

While we’re all hoping that the stress and loss of the pandemic will soon be behind us, the panelists cautioned that we shouldn’t think of it as a “return to normal.” One shared the following quote by Sonya Renee Taylor:

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. 

For many students, “normal” was never working. The traditional structure of school, what it emphasizes, and how it is taught has all been revisited in the past year and a half. Instead of rushing back to “normal,” leaders and teachers should take time to evaluate what changes have actually been for the best. The world has changed, and children’s lives have changed along with it. With that understanding has come more funding, but leaders need to resist the temptation to throw bad money after good just because “normal” practices are familiar. Spending can be a lever for equity, or it can further entrench damaging pre-pandemic practices.

Yes, there is urgency to help children recoup some of the academic progress they missed last year. But before we lose the opportunity to implement meaningful change, to address less-than-functional systems, let’s be intentional and playful about meeting children’s social and emotional needs alongside their academic ones. That involves having meaningful - and sometimes challenging - conversations. SEL, like all other components of learning, is inherently shaped by deeper issues of race, class, and culture. To be really transformative, it needs to honor children’s experiences and identities and teach them to honor one another’s. Yes, social and emotional learning can have many goals, but equity, understanding, and compassion for others needs to be at the heart of a meaningful SEL program.

Clear understanding promotes progress

While teachers can build social and emotional learning opportunities into their daily schedules and routines, in many places, the onus is on them to figure out what that looks like. That’s why defining SEL in your classroom, school, or district is important. When viewed through a unified lens, with clear examples and shared understanding, students get more systematic - and more effective - instruction.

Successfully rolling out an SEL initiative requires buy-in. As all our panelists emphasized, it can’t just be the flavor of the week, and it can’t just be something else thrown on to the stack of a dozen other initiatives on teachers’ plates. So, how do leaders create something meaningful? Partner with teachers, families, communities, and even students to understand their needs, their perceptions, their existing practices and limitations. Co-create something meaningful and relevant to their goals and strengths. Be really specific about how SEL fits into existing learning, and why it’s a meaningful supplement. Understand what supports teachers require, whether that’s training, time, thought partnership with peers, or other resources. (And if you’re not able to do these things, re-evaluate whether your group’s definition “SEL” meets your needs!) Through this co-construction, teachers, leaders, and learners can bring all the pieces together that we need to make it through, together.

Rebuilding or creating new systems is daunting, especially after spending the last year and a half reinventing education, then doing it again (and again, and again, and again). Despite the challenges, educators and leaders now have an opportunity to redefine equitable learning for and with students, families, and communities. Let’s take it.

Feeling inspired? Watch the full webinar here. You can also learn more about the challenges facing education leaders in 2021 and how Teachstone can help you overcome them to build a more just system for your students.

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