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Moving SEL into Practice

It would be a mistake not to recognize all the trauma we have been through as we reached the one-year mark of this pandemic. There always seem to be defining moments in history that we will never forget where we were when we got the news from events such as the assassination of JFK, the Challenger disaster, 9/11, and others. The Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdown that followed will be a time we will always remember where we were and what we were doing. For me, I was getting ready to go to New Hampshire for a work trip and then to Vegas with my husband for the NCAA tournament trying to figure out how to fit all my clothes into my suitcase to quickly canceling plans. We know that we have all experienced trauma, and as we slowly recover, we must prioritize social and emotional learning for students because healing follows its own timeline.

We wrote our book, SEL Connected, to help teachers plan with an SEL mindset and make our classrooms more equitable by meeting our students' needs academically as well as socially and emotionally without sacrificing the content we need to teach. Below is an excerpt from our e-book SEL Connected taken from the introduction on pages 10-15 to help move SEL into practice. As you read this section below, consider what connects to your current practice and what small shifts you can make to impact students tomorrow.

Please note, Jane is a teacher referenced throughout the introduction to highlight her own SEL journey.

Moving Social and Emotional Learning into Practice

Most of SEL’s existence has lived in what Posner (1995) calls the hidden curriculum – “the norms and values of the surrounding society.” This means the way we teach and interact with students, along with the ways we allow them to engage with one another, becomes the “unwritten rules that maintain coherence within a group, and they often trump the written rules” (Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015). Let’s check back in with Jane. She had just shared her worry and discouragement over her students’ engagement and the volume of content she has to teach given her time and resource constraints.

Coach: That sounds like it is incredibly difficult.

Jane: Yeah. That is an understatement.

Coach: What strategies have you used or considered to address students’ distractedness or worry?

Jane: Honestly, I don’t think I have time for that. I am so far behind on my content. I just need to focus on that. The students have lost enough time and instruction as it is.

Once norms, values, and beliefs are named, then there can be an exploration into why those came to be, their impact, and the extent to which bias has informed their existence and implementation.

“Perhaps what is most surprising is that these biases influence us even when they are in direct opposition to our espoused beliefs–and sometimes in opposition to our own lived experience. That’s because unconscious biases are just that–unconscious. As psychology Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, we absorb bias in the same way we breathe in smog–involuntarily and usually without any awareness of it. We’re similarly unaware of how they influence our behavior” (Benson & Fiarman, 2020).

Jane has just expressed a belief that she has to prioritize content learning over addressing students’ social and emotional needs. That belief is part of a series of “learned responses to threats made on the institution” that “exert a powerful influence over what people think” (Kuh & Whitt, 1988). That belief is based upon a set of values or “broad tendencies to prefer certain things over others” (Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015). In order to move SEL out of the hidden curriculum and into a more visible and explicit curriculum, we should name the norms, values, and beliefs that undergird the decisions to keep social and emotional learning out of the everyday curriculum.

The “smog” may look like another teacher dismissing the value of a recent mindfulness training or the school leader frequently checking up on the status of content coverage. Regardless of the origins, they affect our decisions and priorities. When we look at what Jane said, she articulated an awareness of students’ emotional state – eager, worried, distracted – and their need to understand what is going on and feel connected. She knows what they need but doesn’t feel providing it is an option.

The reality is you cannot separate the subjects you teach from the humans that are learning them. As educators, we are shaping humans and their understanding of the world, not just imparting disciplinary knowledge. This is why Jane must attend to her students’ emotional needs in order for them to access the content. She must guide them in how to name and respond to their emotional and interpersonal needs. And the good news is, the evidence shows that social and emotional skills can be taught.

“A review of more than 200 programs for teaching social, emotional, and cognitive competencies in grades K-12 found students’ skills, behaviors, attitudes, and academic performance improved significantly while their emotional distress and behavior problems decreased. Moreover, these programs were beneficial across student populations, regardless of race or income” (The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2018).

As educators, we have the opportunity, and therefore the responsibility, to teach these knowable and essential skills. The premise of this e-book is that teachers have to make social and emotional learning how they do the business of school. Berman, Chaffee, & Sarmiento (2018) echo this point: "How we teach is as instructive as what we teach. Just as the culture of the classroom must reflect social belonging and emotional safety, so can academic instruction embody and enhance these competencies and be enhanced by them."

Speaking of the “how we teach,” we want you to think of social and emotional learning as both a set of tools that you have and a commitment you embody. It will require constant care, commitment, and attention to your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. And because humans and life are messy, no one will always “get it right.” Here is something that Jane tried out.

Following that initial coaching conversation, Jane committed to leveraging check-ins at the start of class. All students would give a rating of one to five on how they feel that day – one being “I’m not okay” and five being “I feel excellent.” The use of this strategy is a good start. In the two minutes it takes to do this activity, students have the chance to practice self-awareness, and they can communicate this to their teacher and peers for support. Also, Jane now has some useful data on her students’ ability and readiness to learn, but what does she do with it? Jane makes a mental note of the students who indicated they were at a 1 and moved forward with the lesson or activity. In the rush to keep moving forward, Jane does not check in personally with the students who said they were at a “one.” Without realizing it, Jane causes some unintentional harm. For one student, an emotion surfaces that they cannot move past. For another, they feel like they are not important to Jane. Social and emotional learning provides both teachers and students the skills to address situations like this one. Once Jane becomes aware, she follows up with the students.

“I know a couple of weeks ago you mentioned you were a level one. How is your heart now? What can I do to support you?”

In those conversations, she is able to understand their needs and perspectives more deeply and recommits to holding this at the forefront of her teaching and interactions with the students. When planning to implement an SEL strategy, consider how you will create a safe, productive, and learning space for all of your students. How will they know they are important to you?

As we continue to think about “how we teach,” let’s talk about cultural responsiveness, bias, and the application of social and emotional learning as means to live out our commitment to SEL. Equity and social and emotional learning go hand in hand. “True SEL is understanding our relationships with ourselves and with others” (Kaler-Jones, 2020). Given each person has a multitude of identities that are situated in a variety of contexts, teaching broadly, as well as with respect to SEL, must be culturally responsive – an approach that draws upon students’ assets, identities, cultural ways of knowing, and experiences to make learning more relevant, inclusive, and affirming.

Culturally responsive work also calls upon us to look at norms, systems, and institutions with a critical eye towards justice. You will see this theme emerge throughout the domains and their underlying capacities. Use this critical eye to identify bias in the understanding and application of social and emotional learning. Here is an example of why this is needed. Cierra Kaler-Jones, author of the Medium article “When SEL is Used as Another Form of Policing,” describes walking around a school and noticed the CASEL framework posters everywhere in classrooms. Seems promising, right? As committed as the school appears to SEL, when she took a closer look at the signs, she saw regulatory, conforming language such as “keep your hands to yourself and don’t take other people’s property” as an example of social awareness.

The use of this language reduces SEL to just mitigation of problematic behavior and a set of rules to be followed. As this case suggests, “SEL can be a covert form of policing used to punish, criminalize, and control Black, Brown, and Indigenous children and communities to adhere to White norms” (Kaler-Jones, 2020). If social and emotional learning is to achieve its true purpose – helping students understand their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and their relationships to others – we must actively resist discriminatory and exclusionary practices. Stay committed to using purposeful language that is inclusive and asset-based. For in so doing, we can use SEL to “develop justice-oriented, global citizens, and nurture inclusive school and district communities” (Jagers, Rivas-Drake, & Williams, 2019).

Now, we know that we just gave you a lot to think about. And before you ask, yes. The title of the book is still SEL Connected: Accessible Strategies to Bridge Social and Emotional Learning to Everyday Content. Here’s why. We conducted a scan of the existing books and writings on the subject. What we found was that too often the works do not show how to carry SEL through the whole of teaching. In order to make the connection between theory and practice, and make the work of SEL feel more possible, we identified strategies and present them within the context of everyday lessons. Up next is how to plan for social and emotional learning in your teaching.

How Do We Plan for SEL

The first step is to know what the SEL skills are. Second, connect those skills to everyday actions and opportunities. Once you see the connections, plan for them. We have created a simple structure to aid in doing so. It can be applied to any of your existing planning tools or templates. Continue to make the SEL competencies relevant, visible, and frequent beyond the lesson experiences.

Once you have become familiar with the SEL domains and the strategies shared in this book, come back to this Lesson Booster to prepare for implementation.

-End of Excerpt

Supporting You on Your Journey

While the excerpt above is a lot to take in, we are here to help! Check out our free resources page, or become a subscriber to receive our free e-book, or purchase our *new* three to five hour self-paced online course called SEL Connected: Planning for Everyday Social and Emotional Learning. It is now up for pre-sale with a launch target date of March 26, 2021! Click on THIS LINK to receive a special 20% off the normal $75 price.


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