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Connecting with Kids: A New Approach to SEL

Teaching emotional regulation builds the foundation for learning

By Lori Jackson and Steve Peck

Editor’s Note: This is the first column from educational psychologist Lori Jackson and special educator Steve Peck. Each month, the “Connecting with Kids” column will feature Lori and Steve’s research-based insights and practical strategies for developing kids’ social-emotional skills, managing behavior, and getting every student ready to learn.

At the core of every project is the foundation upon which everything is built. In our first Connecting with Kids column, we want to begin with our foundation.

At our heart we are educators. We’ve spent our last 15 years working with and for kids, helping them to learn the critical skills they need to succeed in school and in life. Our years of work and research can be summarized by the concept that our emotions drive our behaviors.

As people, we are driven by the emotions that shape our every moment. We can’t stop the emotions from occurring, but we can manage them. This management process is where our foundation takes on its first story. What we know from our work is that we can teach students the skills to manage their emotions and this, in turn, helps them to manage their behaviors. When this is our focus, the changes in behavior are immediate and long-lasting. This is the process of teaching the skills that form the basis of emotional regulation.

This is where our connection began, where we currently focus our work, and where all of our Connecting with Kids columns will have their foundation.

Let’s get started.

The field of social and emotional learning (SEL) has exploded. You can’t open an education journal, attend a conference, or sit in on a team meeting at school without hearing teachers and administrators talking about SEL. They talk about making sure it’s integrated into the curriculum. They talk about how they will do it. They talk about how important it is. But what is “it”?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” The core areas as outlined, are critical for student development and for the development of life skills. Schools are currently challenged to not only teach the CASEL core areas but also for teachers to integrate the big concepts into the core curriculum.

But is the process of teaching SEL more nuanced than many of the current programs might suggest? Should we really be looking to teach SEL, not in the broad approach, but instead by using the same approach as we teach math, or reading, or science?

We believe so and here’s why: It’s all about the foundation.

As educators, we teach individual subjects in a scope and sequence, which is a logical order to ideas which build on each other. Over time, building blocks are combined to form complex ideas and concepts. Students learn all academic subjects this way. Math starts with an introduction to numbers, then continues along to addition and subtraction. When students start school, their math abilities vary greatly. Some may enter knowing their numbers and basic skills, while others have less skill. Regardless, we teach core math concepts and build students’ understanding by having them apply and practice their numbers.

Learning SEL skills is no different. Students’ understanding and SEL skill competencies vary greatly. By teaching students the foundational skills that comprise the rest of the skills as outlined by CASEL, we enable all of our students to learn the skills they need for mastery.

No one would jump within math instruction from multiplication to geometry and then to imaginary numbers. Yet, students are expected to make the jump from learning about emotions to talking about empathy and getting along with others over the course of a few lessons. It, therefore, isn’t surprising that while there is great enthusiasm to embrace SEL, applying it in practice is far more challenging.

Building the foundation

At the core of all SEL skills is the ability to regulate your emotions. This is where we start teaching students and where we remain until all of our students have achieved mastery of this critical skill area. This means that we explicitly teach students about their emotions. Our approach has three parts:

• First, teach students to identify their emotions—Identifying different emotions is critical, as young children often think they know far more emotions than they actually do. Some use one emotion and apply it to similar emotions. Therefore, it’s critical that we give our students the specific names of many common emotions. We begin with 16 common emotions that most people experience, and which can be understood by young learners.

• Second, help students to connect their emotions to the events that ‘drive’ their emotions—This is critical and often overlooked. How often have we asked a student how they feel without connecting that emotion to the situation responsible for it? Context is critical. So we spend time making that connection with students until they are able to make it independently.

• Third, teach students how to connect their emotions to the behaviors they are showing—This doesn’t mean making behavior a negative. Rather, it means helping students to recognize and analyze the connection between how they feel and how they act. This is powerful because it puts the power of change and goal-directed behavior in the hands of our students. It allows them to learn how to manage and drive their own behaviors. It allows teachers to rely on teaching instead of being classroom managers.

Putting it into action

Once we’ve taught the concept that emotions drive behaviors to our students, we can’t assume they will know how to use those concepts. Therefore, we recommend that teachers integrate these concepts into some of the typical routines in their day. We use the classroom daily schedule as a way to integrate the event/emotion pairing into morning discussions about the day, which gives both students and teachers the chance to preview activities and how they might elicit different emotions. We also recommend repurposing the idea of classroom rules into classroom strategies, which give kids suggestions on approved strategies they can use to manage their emotions.

The ideas are simple, but their impact is major. We’re giving our students the solid foundation they need from which to learn a lifetime of social and emotional skills and learn how to use them.

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Further Reading
  1. Education Dive – Report: Arts a vehicle for teaching SEL skills
  2. Greater Good Magazine – How to Take SEL to the Next Level at Your School
  3. KidConnect Blog – Articles
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