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Supporting Social-Emotional Learning: Your Questions, Answered

26 Jul 2021 by Allie Kallmann

Recently, we gathered a panel of social-emotional learning experts on the webinar ‘Supporting the Social-Emotional Needs of Every Child and Every Educator.’ The group included 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. Together, they took us through research on the importance of meaningful connections for children’s academic learning - particularly when those children have experienced trauma. As all of the panelists agreed, when implemented intentionally and systemically, social-emotional learning (SEL) can be a tool to advance equity. (If you haven’t watched it yet, you can see the full recording here.)

We invited our panelists to answer a few more questions from webinar participants. Here’s what they had to say about your most pressing questions:

How can we partner with families, caregivers, and teachers, to ensure positive SEL practices, particularly as we look to support children who have experienced trauma, and/or consider school their safe place? 

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We now have the opportunity to better define what social-emotional learning is and how it’s practiced in our settings in culturally responsive ways: meaningfully connect with families about their goals and wishes for their children, seek out their perceptions of their child’s challenges, understand how rituals and routines are practiced at home, and use their input to create a set of values that inform your learning environment. To the extent possible for their age group, include children in the creation of group expectations. Ask them to share their needs, too, and plan around what they tell you explicitly (with their words, writing, or pictures) and implicitly (with their behavior and interactions with others). It can be difficult and lonely to support children through their growing social and emotional development - so don’t do it alone. Do it in partnership with the others who know your students best. Additionally, it is important to model and engage in our own SEL process for children to see. 

To the extent possible for their age group, include children in the creation of group expectations. Ask them to share their needs, too, and plan around what they tell you explicitly (with their words, writing, or pictures) and implicitly (with their behavior and interactions with others).

As we saw in the Edutopia video during the webinar, relationships blossom when you convey the message to each child: “I see you, I know you, you are important to me.” As educators, we want all children to know they’re important simply because they are a person in our lives - but connections without acknowledging and embracing all parts of them are shallow. “I see you,” and “I know you” mean that I make room for your challenges, strengths, and exploration of self, even when it makes me uncomfortable. They mean I can’t share all of your lived experiences, but I invite you to tell me however you can, and I will listen. When educators lean into the “see” and “know” elements, children can truly believe in their own importance.

In our Interactions at the Heart of Healing course, we talk about 3 key elements to make part of our moment-to-moment interactions with all children: relationships, responsiveness, and routines. These key elements work especially well when lived intentionally and consistently, with children who have experienced trauma. As Bridget mentioned in the webinar, “Simple practices make a big difference.” Through trial and error - and knowledge of your students - you will figure out which routines and activities work best. Because SEL practices are different across age levels, we suggest taking a look at resources from CASEL (such as the 3 Signature Practices Playbook), CSEFEL, Aspen Education (such as Integrating Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD): An Action Guide for School Leadership Teams) and Teachstone (such as the SEL book list or age-aligned strategies to support self-regulation). Many state departments of education, colleges, or universities, also have excellent resources that give suggestions to support SEL in your learning environment.

For the youngest of our students, the pandemic has been part of their lives for almost all of what they can recall. How can we help those children when the larger effect on them will be their caregivers’ adjustments to the return to “normal” instead of their own?

When children walk into the classrooms for the first time, even under more typical circumstances, there is a period of normalization as they foster relationships with peers and teachers, learn to meet expectations, and get ready to learn. This period varies from child to child. Some children adapt very quickly. Others will need significantly more time and exposure to positive experiences to start trusting other adults, whether due to personality, temperament, trauma, or other elements of their background. 

Strengthen routines, tune in to children’s feelings, give clear warnings and signals for change, and practice new things in small bites.

Like this participant pointed out, the shift from pandemic precautions to “normal” is going to be even larger. But many of the tools that educators and caregivers already use to ease transitions will be relevant here, too. Strengthen routines, tune in to children’s feelings, give clear warnings and signals for change, and practice new things in small bites. If there are changes to the rules - for example, from “keep your mask on” to “your mask stays in your cubby” - acknowledge to children that the change may be confusing or difficult. Consider using tools like social stories or puppets to teach routines. Keep in mind that these changes may come with even bigger feelings than usual, because none of this is routine for them.

What is your advice to support resilience in children, families, educators?

In our Interactions at the Heart of Healing course, Rachel Wagner teaches us that resilience means in simple terms the ability to bounce back. We all need it to cope with change - the bad and the good. Resilience is built with time, with circles of support, and with love. With those three essentials, when we go through a crisis, we come out stronger and wiser on the other side. 

For children, much of the reason we prioritize social-emotional learning is because it builds life-long skills like resilience. Through effective, consistent, and equity-minded SEL, educators and families help children develop resilience. Keep expectations grounded in developmental reality. When a toddler has a tantrum because there are too many crackers on their plate, it doesn’t mean they lack resilience, it means they’re two years old. For all children’s emotional needs, whether toddlers or teens, respond warmly, empathetically, and promptly. Love isn’t just an emotion - it’s also consistency and boundaries. 

Rather than putting the burden solely on individual educators, leaders can provide “circles of support” by crafting environments that let teachers prioritize self-care - and not just on their own time.

Adults are often told to practice self-care, meditation, and mindfulness which, research shows, do help. But rather than putting the burden solely on individual educators, leaders can provide these “circles of support” by crafting environments that let teachers prioritize self-care - and not just on their own time. Self-care in a school context could be professional development, instructional coaching, protected prep time, or ideally, supports suggested by the educators themselves. And “love,” in a professional context, will look a lot more like respect. Again, turn to educators to help define what that means. When teachers are cared for, they can in turn do this for children and for their families. 

 

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