Why social and emotional learning is important for children

My 9-year-old son’s previous school tried to teach him skills like self-regulation and empathy, but in practice it all felt like just another item on his busy teacher’s daily checklist . The children would rush through an eight-minute breathing exercise, only to be rushed to their 10-minute lunch and 10-minute recess. I suspected they would learn more, socially and emotionally, by spending more time eating and playing – and skipping the mini-meditation.

But when my son changed schools last year, I saw how effective SEL could be. Like most children, he entered the 2021-22 school year socially and emotionally scarred by the pandemic. Her ability to trust educators, the academic process, and her peers, as well as to motivate herself and take responsibility for her actions, had been challenged.

The new school anticipated these issues for many and spent the first two months working on social and emotional skills. Unlike the previous school which focused on learning behavior regulation, his new school’s SEL program put relationships at the center and incorporated those lessons into everything they did. Individual activities such as self-regulation and resilience were present but still part of a larger goal to improve personal and community relationships.

It worked. “We feel like we got our son back,” my husband would tell people when they asked him how he was doing. I felt the same. Her ability to focus on academic work returned, as did her willingness to hug loved ones.

Yet the pandemic has left its mark on both my eldest son and my youngest, a rising kindergartner, neither of whom is as confident as he likely would have been if Covid- 19 had never happened.

You can also see it in your children. Experts note that many children, in addition to falling behind academically, have also experienced what could be considered a loss of social and emotional learning. Emerging research suggests the same. For some, this means clinical anxiety and depression. For the most part, this means mild to moderate setbacks in children’s ability to do things like take on new responsibilities, try new things, or make friends.

What is SEL?

SEL aims to teach children what CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, calls « basic social and emotional skills. » The organization breaks them down into five main areas: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship skills. This type of teaching first appeared in the 1960s and over the past few decades has slowly made its way into most schools.

SEL can take place informally and formally through conversations, exercises, and activities. Experts say no single program is best for a school or community, but cramming SEL into one short session during the day should be seen as a red flag.

“Schools have increasingly begun to better understand children’s behaviors,” said Anya Kamenetz, an education journalist and author of the forthcoming book “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go. Now ».

« With SEL, we saw a shift from ‘What is this kid doing?’ to ‘What is this kid living?’ It makes all the difference in the world because it’s not about what’s wrong with kids, it’s about what’s going on with them and what’s going on in their lives that causes them to behave somehow. »

Students may be more willing to take on academic challenges when they feel connected to school.
Research on SEL shows it can help children academically, as children learn to focus, self-regulate, behave better in the classroom, and build positive relationships with their peers and teachers. . When children feel supported at school and believe that their teachers and peers have their best interests in mind, they are more willing to take on academic challenges. These benefits can last a lifetime, as children who have gone through SEL programs, the younger the better, tend to have higher levels of well-being later in life.
Ultimately, none of these approaches are exactly new. « Every culture has similar notions. You want your child to grow up to be a good person, » said Maurice J. Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University and co-author of « Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. » The difference is taking that impulse to raise good kids and figuring out what skills make that more likely for those from diverse backgrounds.

Why our children need it now

More than two years into Covid-19 and many of our children are lonely and exhausted, said Aaliyah A. Samuel, CEO of CASEL. They are « not just academically exhausted, but mentally exhausted, » she said. « And they don’t feel connected at school. » They need a reset, help finding their way back to a place where being in school energizes them rather than exhausts them, education experts say.

Kamenetz said the teachers and school leaders she spoke with are also seeing more of what they call « regressed » behaviors, such as children bringing toys to school at older ages. There are also many reports of children appearing socially overwhelmed at school and escaping by hiding in the bathroom or behind the screens of their phones.

Teachers and principals may be tempted to ignore such behavior and just focus on getting kids up to speed, Elias said. But this risks making the children fall even further behind.

« One of my big concerns is that educators will only do the six-minute SEL teaching to increase the time spent on academics, but that’s a prescription for disaster. Because if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic is how important relationships are in all aspects of life, » he said. « If we want our children to get back on track (with) school learning, we have to do it first. »

The reason, he said, is that it’s our « emotional brain », rather than our « thinking brain », that allows us to sit down and learn. We cannot make much progress academically if our emotional brain is destabilized. Only when students feel safe and connected to teachers and peers will they feel ready to get to work, education experts have said.

It is also our emotional brain that allows us to manage this uncertain moment, and the many uncertain moments that will follow.

« We’re preparing our kids for a future, and we don’t know what it’s going to look like, » Samuel said. « The world is changing rapidly…and we need to help our children be flexible and nimble to manage these changes in the world as they happen. Because change is inevitable. »

What can parents and guardians do?

Parents and caregivers concerned about their children’s SEL learning loss can start by asking the school and teachers about their program, Kamenetz said. Ideally, their approach is integrated, woven throughout the day, with many different facets that affect children in different ways.

There may be times when they learn to label and manage their emotions, when they learn to work together, when they learn to respect other children, including those who are different from them, and when kindness and empathy are rewarded.

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Parents and guardians can work with teachers to determine their children’s strengths and weaknesses and try to incorporate those lessons into the home.

Another possibility: adults can try to engage in their own SEL, which we would probably all benefit from after the last few years. We could take time to talk about labeling and processing our feelings with our children, both bad and good, and work on self-regulation and resilience. We could also talk about all the ways our good relationships benefit us and how we’re also struggling to connect due to the pandemic.

« At the end of the day, it’s not about human perfectibility, » Kamenetz said, « but about the fact that these are skills we work on throughout our lives. »

Elissa Strauss covers the culture and politics of parenting. Her book on the radical power of parenting and caregiving will be published in 2023.

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