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#SELChat: Be Intentional About Course-Correcting

Although the first semester is almost over, it’s not too late to make adjustments to create a safe and nurturing environment at your school for spring 2020.  Recently, educators have asked me: “How do I incorporate social-emotional learning into our school day?” Before discussing the how, let’s look at the why. 

In the early 1990’s, Hawkins & Catalano (1992, 1995) identified three factors to help move kids from risk to resilience:  1) Relationships, 2) High Expectations, and 3) Meaningful Engagement. Given our current understanding of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), we know that being a child at risk is not relegated to a particular race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.  We are all at risk. That is part of our human condition. Likewise, we can all develop resilience – the ability to bounce back despite adversity. 

In September 2019, Christina Bethell and her team at Johns Hopkins University released research on how Positive Childhood Experiences can help counteract ACEs.  Bethell identified seven Positive Childhood Experiences:

•  Ability to talk to family about feelings

•  Felt experience that family is supportive in difficult times

•  Enjoyment in participation in community traditions

•  Feeling of belonging in high school

•  Feeling of being support by friends

•  Having at least two non-parent adults who genuinely care

•  Feeling safe and protected by an adult at home

Our “why” for teaching SEL is to provide Positive Childhood Experiences in order to combat ACEs.  Interestingly, these seven experiences identified by Bethell do correlate with the three keys identified by Hawkins and Catalano.  We want our kids to know they are seen, known, valued, and loved. Therefore, we create a safe place where they can talk about their feelings, receive support, participate in traditions, enjoy friends, be cared for, and know they belong – Relationships, High Expectations, and Meaningful Engagement. 

How can you accomplish all of this in a school day?  It starts with being intentional. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are already doing the work of SEL by nature of being in a caring role with children.  Remember Bandura’s social learning theory?  Your students are learning from you with every word, action, and even facial expression.  The dictionary definition of intentional is “done by design.”  Synonyms include conscious, deliberate, and purposeful.  By being intentional about how you teach SEL, you can have a greater positive impact that, in turn, can better equip students for success in life.

Being intentional about SEL requires explicit instruction, which includes the following:

1. Dedicated time and space – Make SEL a priority in your schedule.  According to SEL researcher Maurice Elias, a minimum of 15 minutes per day is recommended.  This is dose effect, which yields positive results over time. Also, designate a particular space, such as a circle of carpet squares or bean bags.  The simple practice of gathering at the same time in the same space creates a sense of security which enables children to be more receptive and open.

2. Common language – Clearly define the character traits you are teaching, such as “Honesty is speaking and acting truthfully” or “Respect is valuing yourself and others.”  Then connect these traits to daily practice: “We are honest when we do our own homework instead of copying someone else’s. We are respectful when we use words that build others up, not tear them down.”

3. Common experiences – Whether you choose to use stories, games, or art projects, reinforce your common language with meaningful activities.  Be sure to connect the dots between the activity and the message you are teaching. For example, when you read If A Bus Could Talk:  The Story of Rosa Parks by Faith Ringgold, talk about Rosa Parks’ courage.  Courage is standing up for what is right, facing your fears.  Ask students how they can stand up for what is right like Parks did. 

Whether you choose to write your own curriculum or adopt another resource, the key to successful implementation is strong administrative leadership and teacher buy-in.  That means that administrators must communicate their commitment to SEL to their staff by allocating funding, training time, and continual positive reinforcement. Don’t let SEL become just another thing you have tried…commit for the long haul.  Change occurs over time. In fact, you may not see the desired results for 3-5 years. You are making a long-term investment into the care and quality of your children, families, and community. When teachers know that their leaders are committed, they will be more apt to participate, not simply comply.  In order to achieve whole-hearted participation, give teachers voice and choice.

Remember, culture is what you do and climate is how it feels.  Your goal is to create a safe place where kids are celebrated, families are supported, and teachers are valued.  Making SEL a priority in your school community can help you achieve this goal. 

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