Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is Not the Whole Solution
What do these two posters say to the students about what the teacher values?
At a quick glance, these posters are both colorful, have common expressions, but on closer inspection they have very different messages about the power structure in the classroom. As a teacher, are you intentional about whether you have a “we will work together” classroom or a “you will meet my expectations” classroom? Students may come in wanting to meet expectations, but many have previous experiences in or out of school that make them question whether they can be successful in your class. Social emotional learning is designed to help students deal with the stress and anxiety of these situations, but what if we could also focus on doing our part as educators to limit the tension in the first place.
What is SEL?
CASEL defines SEL 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.”
In my school district, the focus on SEL has led to hiring personnel: to provide professional development to teachers, support students, publish monthly newsletters to parents and staff, and structure the SEL implementation along with a myriad of other things. This translates to classroom activities to foster SEL. As a younger teacher, I never envisioned myself leading students (through Zoom) in breathing, stretching, or focus activities. However, these few minutes each day were a way to connect with students and improve relationships by showing that I cared about them beyond just their mathematical skills. Providing students the skills to manage their emotions and reflect on their behavior will benefit them both in and out of school.
As I built students’ coping mechanisms and emotional intelligence, I wondered what were the triggers that we were teaching students to handle. How many of these emotional triggers could be reduced or eliminated by a shift in practice from the adults in the school building and district in which I work? For some students, school is the only emotionally and physically safe space they frequent, but for too many others, school adds to the anxiety and emotional trauma that SEL is trying to allow students to handle.
One day I was reminded of a bathtub analogy that was shown to me in a different context, and I realized it made sense for the SEL dilemma I was facing. Students live in varying levels of anxiety depending on their home life and their school. SEL is designed to give students the tools to cope. However, the issue isn’t solely about whether SEL (drain) can drain the sea of anxiety out of our students’ lives, it is about whether we are willing to stop the flow of anxiety (faucet) into their lives. Notice the size of the arrows. We can add in all of the SEL we want, but the drain will never keep the tub from filling unless we take the steps to shut off or slow the flow of the water into the tub. We will never successfully achieve the goal of keeping our students from drowning without addressing both the faucet and the drain.
Applying & Teaching Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom
All education problems and solutions have roots at the classroom, school, and district level. As a classroom teacher, I have been thinking about what I do that causes anxiety in my students and how I can change my behaviors. If something as simple as posters of classroom rules can make a difference, what else do I need to be reflecting on?
I teach middle school math intervention. My students come to my class scared of the content I need to teach them. It isn’t just me. A fourth grader who doesn’t read well, a first grader without any clean clothes, a high school student who is being bullied, all have anxiety that is predetermined. Each of these students deserves a school that asks the following questions:
What practices exist in your classroom, school, or district that trigger anxiety for students?
What personnel and procedures are in place to limit practices that make students uncomfortable?
How can student voice play a role in our reflection process?
As we work on limiting the anxiety-producing behaviors within our schools, what can we do to support students outside of our buildings?
SEL is critical to teach students the skills to handle the adversity life will throw at them. Let’s do our part to give them these skills, but let’s also reflect on our practices as adults. Students need these SEL skills, but maybe we can create an environment where they need them a little less often.