What is SEL in schools? Social and emotional learning explained – The Cincinnati Enquirer

A study published this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found one-third of high school students experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic – an unsurprising trend that educators have been working to combat over the past year.
Many schools say they use social and emotional learning practices to help struggling students. But what does social and emotional learning mean? And does it work?
Social and emotional learning, often referred to by SEL, has been under attack by parents and politicians over the last year and a half. Some have confused the term with critical race theory, or CRT, another hot-button issue among conservatives that got a lot of attention during the November 2021 school board elections. A number of bills have been introduced across the country in opposition to teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools, including in Ohio.  
Social and emotional learning has been present in K-12 classrooms since the 1990s. It has been a learning standard in Ohio’s strategic plan for education since 2019.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning was formed in 1994 by a group of researchers, educators, practitioners and child advocates. It coined the term “social and emotional learning” and the organization now leads the nation’s efforts to provide emotional teaching support to all students.
The collaborative defines social and emotional learning as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
There is a continuum of mental health supports for kids in schools, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center pediatric psychologist Aria Fiat said.
On one end are specialized resources and therapists for kids with significant mental health needs. On the other end is a more universal approach.
For younger kids, teachers might spend time talking about self-control or have students sit in a circle to take turns sharing how they’re feeling on a given day. Identifying emotions are a key part of the social and emotional learning framework for elementary students.
Older students might talk about coping strategies when dealing with grief, violence prevention techniques or what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like in families, friendships and dating. Learning how to regulate emotions and respond appropriately in difficult situations is a big part of social and emotional learning, Fiat said.
“Kids need to understand about their emotions, they need to understand about interacting with others – about making friends – in order to be successful in life,” Fiat said.
Teaching those skills to children helps prevent future mental health struggles, behavioral problems and addiction disorders, Fiat said. Social and emotional learning only works, though, if whole school staffs are on board along with parents and communities.
Schools should communicate with parents the social and emotional learning goals they are working on with students and provide resources to reinforce those learning goals at home, just like parents might help with reading or math homework, Fiat said.
Saying “I’m noticing that my heart’s beating really fast and my muscles are getting really tense and I’m getting red, I think I might be anxious about something. I’m going to take some deep breaths,” and then going through that coping strategy with their child is a great way to reinforce social and emotional learning skills, Fiat said.
Learning those skills once in the classroom won’t make any real change, Fiat said. Working relaxation and mindfulness exercises into a child’s daily routine – in the car, during dinner or while brushing teeth – is what will help make those techniques stick.
Paolo DeMaria, president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education and former Ohio superintendent of public instruction, said “you don’t have to be a rocket scientist” to understand that kids won’t do their best if their basic needs – mental or physical health-wise – aren’t being met. 
Poor eyesight, toothaches, asthma, diabetes and hunger issues need to be addressed before children can be expected to sit down and go over math problems. That’s why schools often partner with optometrists, dentists, doctors and food pantries to get students the care they need at school or through referrals, he said.
The same goes for mental health needs. But to be effective, schools need to know where to start.
DeMaria led Ohio’s efforts in 2019 to implement social and emotional learning standards. Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of school superintendents and state education commissioners, used Ohio’s plan to develop a way for schools to assess whether they’re meeting students’ mental health needs. 
Schools can also survey students to check in on their well-being, which DeMaria knows is not attractive to educators who don’t want to take away from instruction time.
Social and emotional learning might “sound like another buzzword,” Cincinnati Children’s Fiat said. But she believes it is part of the answer to the current mental health crisis facing the nation’s youth, if only it’s implemented as intended.
Fiat said crisis interventions aren’t enough to deal with the high levels of anxiety, depression and suicide in children today. Those supports, while essential, are reactive. Social and emotional learning is preventative.
A 2021 report published by the Early Intervention Foundation, a charity based in the United Kingdom to support at-risk children, found universal social and emotional learning interventions can have a significant impact on the reduction of kids’ depression and anxiety symptoms in the short term. Teaching social and emotional skills is “essential for the increasingly complex and rapidly changing world in which we live,” the report reads.
The impact is dependent on implementation, though, according to another report published the same year by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education through the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based philanthropy promoting arts and education for disadvantaged youth. The report states “very few” social and emotional learning programs focus on equity, justice, cultural competence, or cultural diversity.
“Coming out of this pandemic, a lot of kids are hurting,” school board association’s DeMaria said. “We’re saddened by that, but we can do things about it. We can make a difference.”

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