It wasn’t until my fourth year of teaching that I really “got” it.
I loved my job; teaching American History allowed me to facilitate important conversations related to the world around us and link events to explain the “whys” of our society. This was a thrilling part of my day. Discussion flowed and my students thrived on sharing their opinions while I encouraged them to cite evidence to back up their statements, not just rely on emotion.
When I started my first job, I was 21 years old, teaching students four and five years younger than me. I held high expectations for their academic growth (primary) and their behavioral choices (secondary). I put my heart and soul into preparing them for the “real world” and ensuring their success beyond high school through learning about American History.
However, about 13 years ago, I realized that my students could have all the knowledge in the world, but if they didn’t know how to manage their emotions (which run amok in a high school setting), recognize emotions in others, communicate effectively, or make appropriate decisions – they would not be given a chance to show how much they knew. I knew this already, as most of us do, deep down. But I had failed to explicitly emphasize the purpose and outcomes of the affective learning in my teaching and in the students’ learning.
Social Emotional Learning
Learning about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) helped me purposefully and meaningfully weave essential affective skills into my content. In the early 2000s, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defined five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies. These skills guided my lesson planning and framed my dialogue with students about behavior and learning.
CASEL’s 2011 meta-analysis on the impact of Social Emotional programs on student outcomes reinforced that these affective skills can, and should, be integrated into school curriculum. I became aware that I was doing a disservice to my students by attempting to prepare them for academic growth (primarily or solely) while relegating the social emotional learning skills to a secondary status.
Our Three Brains
Brain research, conducted in 1970 by Dr. Paul MacLean, a physician and neuroscientist from Yale University and the National Institute of Mental Health, provides insight into how cognitive and affective learning are interrelated. MacLean found that the human brain is comprised of three separate, but interconnected brains that developed sequentially over time.
Our cognitive functioning is dependent upon our basic needs being met through the establishment of neuropathways between the reptilian, limbic, and neocortex systems. In essence, think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Breathing, body temperature, food intake, and safety are correctly regulated in the “deciding” reptilian brain. The reptilian brain, in turn, affects the “feeling” limbic system (also referred to as the “mammalian brain”) that manages emotions such as love, loyalty, and responsibility. Intelligence, language, and reasoning (in the “thinking” neocortex) can only be fully realized if the basic necessities of life are regulated with in the reptilian brain and limbic system. Specifically, the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with problem-solving and long-term planning, is deeply connected to the limbic system to enable powerful emotions and impulses to influence decision-making.
Thus, in order for students to achieve their highest academic potential, we must first meet their basic needs of feeling safe, being fed, being accepted, and being valued. We cannot expect students to function at their best if they are concerned with feeling emotionally or physically safe, and included, within the learning environment.
What Can We Do?
First, we can realize it is not about the content. We are not teaching content; we are teaching children. I used to address my high school students as “young adults” –but didn’t know enough to realize that they are not yet adults. Dr. Jay Giedd, an expert on pediatric neuroscience, discovered that parts of the neocortex are still developing into our students’ mid-20s. This has huge implications for teaching and learning. Understanding how our students’ brains function allows us to develop instructional strategies that first meets their social and emotional needs – which then influences their cognitive development.
Altering a student’s home environment is not within our immediate locus of control. However, we can work with schools to connect students and families to community resources. We can contribute to clothing and food drives. We can show our support for all students, regardless of socio-economic status, by maintaining high standards for growth and providing scaffolds when necessary. Maintaining rigor, with support, shows we believe in our students’ abilities to succeed. Every step forward is a success; celebrate it.
Along with rigor, construct high expectations for student interaction that ensures your classroom is a safe environment in which all students feel welcomed and included as part of the learning community. Spend the first few days allowing the students to really get to know one another, outside of the content. Work with them to identify and set personal and learning goals, both short and long term. Provide them time and opportunity to establish healthy, respectful relationships with one another.
Talk to your students about the process of group dynamics (using Cog’s Ladder or Tuckman’s Stages) and levels of relationships. Integrate shared expectations for the class and reiterate on a regular basis that you are in a community that values and enjoys the process of learning – and that you are taking the journey together. Specify that in order to do this effectively, the class must become “friend-like,” treating each person, each day with the kindness and respect that we want for ourselves. When you organize collaborative work for your students, provide time to process not only the academic learning but also the social emotional learning. Encourage students to reflect on and discuss the following questions: How did I work with my peers? What worked well? What didn’t work? What can I/we do differently next time?
Support your students and urge them to take risks in their academic learning – to fearlessly try new methods and work towards improvement, without worry of judgment. It is often in our mistakes and missteps that we learn the most. Aid students in identifying coping skills to build resiliency for the times when they are struggling academically or personally. Model various scaffolding techniques so they can self-select in the future to persevere through obstacles.
Partnerships for Successful SEL Integration
We educators cannot do this alone. We need the involved dedication of parents, families and the community to support and model for our students. Our ever-expanding technological world affords us the opportunity to expand our classroom community beyond its brick and mortar walls. We can invite parents and family members into a more personalized classroom by selecting to leave individual or group voice messages, through technology like Remind, instead of writing group emails. With Remind, Twitter or district websites, we can send out reminders of class projects prior to the due in a proactive manner as opposed to calling or emailing home when a student doesn’t turn in a project. As a teacher, I was constantly encouraged to call and/or write home about the “good” we witnessed in our students. I never realized how powerful this was until I received a hand-written note from my eldest son’s 7th grade teachers. It is worth the extra ten minutes and money for a stamp. It is crucial that we all work together and model the behaviors we want to see within our students and children.
Moving Forward with Success in Mind
Parents, teachers, and administrators all want to support children during these formative years so they can lead happy, productive, fulfilling lives. Educators work diligently to devising and implementing curriculum to meet the needs of diverse learners in order to prepare them for “college and career readiness.” SEL plays a critical part in one’s success in life.
Daniel Goleman’s 1995 research in on Emotional Intelligence found that one’s Intelligence Quotient is an important factor in getting hired for a job. However, one’s Emotional Quotient, “how you handle yourself and your relationships… matters more than your IQ. In a high-IQ job pool, [social emotional skills] like discipline, drive and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.”
In order to best prepare our students for future success, we must model the behaviors we want to see develop in our students, integrate social emotional learning into our daily curriculum, explicitly process the cognitive and affective learning of our students, and provide specific and meaningful feedback to promote growth. We owe it to our students to support and develop the Whole Child; social emotional learning provides us a pathway in which to successfully accomplish this goal.